The discourse after the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan resulted in divergent views being expressed by leading political parties, their representatives and sympathizers. Supporters of the government viewed it as a victory of Prime Minister’s foreign policy while some of the supporters of those who’re in the opposition decided to hail Imran Khan as a “statesman”. It is disturbing to see how in the process of hating Modi, some of our journalists and politicians have started to attribute everything to anyone but Modi.
This entire episode reminds me of Modi’s support to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh who was infamously called as a “dehati aurat” by then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. PM Modi not just condemned the statement but stood resolutely with India’s Prime Minister irrespective of party lines. I didn’t see the leaders of Congress ever put the interest of India ahead of party politics over the last five years and perhaps this is the reason behind their inability to come up with a concrete agenda during an election year.
But this article is not about the Congress or about politics, it is about Prime Minister Modi and India’s relationship with Pakistan. I hope this serves as a gentle reminder to my liberal friends who hailed a simple act of release of a Prisoner of War within 48 hours due to enormous global pressure on Pakistan as a reason enough to erroneously term Khan as a statesman just to avoid giving Modi his due. I hope (against hope) that with this gentle reminder, they may feel ashamed for what they’ve done and may cease to be so biased in the future.
It is no secret that even before Modi took oath as the Prime Minister, he made a departure from convention and invited all SAARC leaders including Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony. This gesture demonstrated the clear willingness of Modi to let start afresh the process of dialogue between India and Pakistan. On 26th of May 2014, when Modi took the oath, Nawaz Sharif was also present while on a subsequent day bilateral talks were held with all leaders of SAARC, including Pakistan. During the talks both Modi and Nawaz expressed the desire to initiate the process of dialogue and Modi suggested foreign secretary talks and trade through the Wagah Atari Border. On his first day as the Prime Minister, Modi made a big gesture towards mending relationships with Pakistan.
But this was not the last such gesture as in Paris, Nawaz Sharif expressed his desire to Modi for India’s participation at the foreign minister level during the heart of Asia conference on 9th December 2015. Modi agreed immediately and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went for the meeting. While she was there, she was invited to Nawaz Sharif’s house for lunch where his family wanted to meet her. Our foreign minister met with four generations of his family and his mother was delighted to have met someone from India (as she herself was originally from India). Sharif’s mother expressed her desire to see peaceful relationships between the two countries and our foreign minister was touched by such an emotional request. Consequently, despite not having the mandate, the dialogue was resumed under a new name – “Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue”. This was done because the previous name had way too much of legacy issues.
9th December 2015 the comprehensive dialogue was resumed. On 25th December, Modi was in Afghanistan and the day also happens to be Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. Nawaz called Modi and said that he had a function at his daughter’s that day. On the way back from Kabul, Lahore would be on the way so Prime Minister Modi decided to accept the invitation and stop at Lahore while he returned to Delhi. Unfortunately, on 2nd January, this gesture by Modi and India was reciprocated by Pakistan when the Pathankot air base was attacked. On this too, Congress decided to play politics as it was said that Vajpayee went to Lahore and Kargil happened while Modi went to Lahore and Pathankot happened.
Post the attack, unlike before, Pakistan did not completely deny the role of non-state actors in the attack and offered a joint investigation. This was a departure from their conventional response so Modi gave them the benefit of doubt and agreed to joint investigations. Of course, it was evident that the joint investigations went nowhere as domestic pressure on Pakistan’s civilian government curtailed them from taking a strong position on terrorism.
When Uri happened, the government decided that enough is enough and we can not take the death of our soldiers to such unconventional war as our destiny. The surgical strikes were an outcome of Pakistan testing India’s patience as it finally realized that this was the point where we drew the line. When Imran Khan took over, he expressed a desire to resume the process of dialogue with India by writing a letter to Modi. Our foreign minister was going for the United Nations General Assembly, so Modi suggested that she meet her Pakistani counterpart. Within 12 hours of India’s spokesperson announcing a meet between the two foreign ministers, Kashmir police’s 3 jawans were held hostages and eventually murdered. It is evident that every time the civilian leadership of Pakistan tries to initiate the process of dialogue, so-called non-state actors derail the process. This reflects badly on Pakistan as it demonstrates how the civilian leadership has little to no control over these elements within Pakistan.
When Pulwama happened, it was clear that India government will take necessary action towards ensuring that those responsible are held accountable. Oh, and post the air-strikes, India went on with business as usual while Pakistan was in constant fear of escalation from India’s side. It must be noted that India’s air-strikes were on non-civilian and non-military targets, but Pakistan responded by violating India’s airspace and making a failed attempt at attacking India’s military establishments. This attempt by Pakistan led to them capturing wing commander Abhinandan and subsequently releasing him within 48 hours. We can ignore the “propaganda” video that was made by Pakistan’s military leadership, but the fact remains that Abhinandan’s return was because of mounting international pressure on Pakistan combined with a fear of escalation.
This chain of events is important for two reasons, first, it shows how the liberals were too scared to give credit to Modi for the air-strikes and subsequent release of wing commander Abhinandan and secondly, it shows how political considerations subsume any regard for national interest. The occurrence of events categorically states that it is India which has consistently worked with Pakistan towards resuming the process of peace, however, repeatedly, the elements within Pakistan have tried to derail the process.
Modi wants good relations with Pakistan but in the time of peace, when there are no gunshots and no lives lost. It is Modi who is a man of peace and while Imran may claim to be a man of peace, the fact remains that he is no different from those who were before him. Unfortunately, he may not be any different from those who may replace him in the near future.
This article is an outcome of a lecture by External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj on India’s foreign policy at an event organized by the Foundation for Public Awareness and Policy (FPAP). Views expressed are opinions of the author based on the lecture. You can view the lecture by clicking here.
Karan Bhasin is a political economist by academic training. He tweets at @karanbhasin95