There is a slim chance that any substantive dialogue between Modi and Sharif could take place in Astana — India realises it will not benefit from talks.
By Ashok Sajjanhar
Over the last few weeks in the Pakistan media, speculation has been rife over the possibility of a meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where both leaders would be present for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit next week. In the meeting on 8 and 9 June, both India and Pakistan are expected to be admitted to the body which was established in 2001 with Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as the other members.
No such hype is, however, visible in the Indian press. Well-informed sources in India maintain that no request for such a meeting has been received from Pakistan. They appear to suggest that the likelihood of such a meeting is low.
This agreement proved to be stillborn as Sharif was not able to keep his side of the bargain in the wake of the strident opposition to the Ufa Declaration on his return home since the ‘K (Kashmir)’ word was missing from the document. Ufa was followed by meeting of the NSAs and Foreign Secretaries of the two countries in Bangkok on 6 December 2015 which paved the way for the participation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the Heart of Asia meeting in Islamabad on 9 December 2015. This resulted in the decision to launch the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue with an understanding that the first meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries would be held in January 2016. Climax of the year came in the bold and courageous move by Prime Minister Modi to make an unplanned, impromptu stopover in Lahore on 25 December 2015 — on his way back from Moscow and Kabul — to wish Sharif on his birthday and participate in his grand daughter’s wedding.
Within barely a week of this intrepid move, Pathankot terror attack happened. This was followed by attack in Uri, the surgical strikes, Nagrota and most recently the capture, trial and death sentence to former Indian Navy commander Kulbhushan Jadhav. Infiltrations from across the border and ceasefire violations in recent months have surpassed earlier levels. Pakistan’s involvement in stoking violence and unrest in Kashmir Valley has increased notably as compared to earlier years.
It had been hoped in some quarters in India that relations might see some improvement with the retirement of Raheel Sharif from the top military position in Rawalpindi and the induction of Qamar Javed Bajwa as the Pakistan Army Chief. All such expectations have been shattered. In some way, the increased activity by Pakistan on the border and within Kashmir is a reflection of the civil-military tussle within Pakistan. In recent months, after the Dawn leak case and the growing pressure on Nawaz Sharif due to the Panama Papers revelations and the trial, the Prime Minister’s position and standing has taken a heavy beating. Sharif’s authority in public perception took a further hit after he was not allowed to speak at the Islamic Summit in Saudi Arabia. Beside a scruffy handshake, he was not able to have any conversation, let alone get an audience, with US President Donald Trump. Pakistan army through the activities of its proxies is trying to further strengthen its control and position in the public mind as the only protector and saviour of Pakistan sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also tries by these machinations to put greater pressure on India, internationalise the Kashmir issue and win brownie points with China by maintaining that all its problems in Balochistan, through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs, are on account of India’s intrigues and conspiracies.
Under the present circumstances, the public mood in India is strongly opposed to any dialogue with Pakistan unless there are convincing and credible assurances from it that it will eschew the path of terrorism and embark on building cordial and mutually beneficial relations with India. No indications to this change of mind and heart by Pakistan are forthcoming.
It may be recalled that after Ufa and Lahore, Modi and Sharif were together in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in July last year for the SCO Summit. No bilateral meeting took place at that time for the reason that public opinion in India was not supportive of such a move. Relations today are far worse than in July 2016 when the situation in Kashmir had just started worsening after the killing of terrorist Burhan Wani by security forces on 8 July 2016. It, however, also needs to be kept in mind that Modi today enjoys the confidence of large sections of people in India across political, religious, intellectual, social and economic spectra. He has the support of the people and credibility to engage Pakistan in a dialogue if he thinks it could result in a positive outcome.
India has said in the past that “terror and talks” cannot go together. Past experience has also proved that Pakistan continues to use terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy and relentlessly pursues the dictum of “bleeding India with a thousand cuts.” It has got further emboldened in its policy of using terrorist proxy groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashakr-e-Taiba etc to carry out attacks against Indian military bases and common citizens because of its rapidly expanding nexus with China and growing ties with Russia, particularly in the defence field. It is trying to create relevance for itself by assuring Russia that it will connect it with the Taliban so that all Russian assets and forces in the region could be used against the growing power of ISIS.
China and Russia would be keen that parleys between India and Pakistan take place because it would enhance the profile of the SCO, which is a China-dominated body, functioning with concurrence and support of Russia. It would also help to increase the international clout and prestige of these two countries as the talks would demonstrate their influence and sway as they would be seen to have brought two implacable foes to the negotiating table.
India realises that it will not get any benefit from the talks not only because Pakistan is not serious about bringing an end to its terrorist actions against India but also because Sharif does not call the shots as far as Pakistan’s relations with India are concerned.
In such a scenario, there is only a very slim chance that any substantive dialogue between Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif could take place in Astana. Even if it does happen, it is likely to be more in the nature of an informal, unstructured conversation. No hopes or expectations should be raised that this dialogue could prove to be effective in any manner to take the relationship back to 25 December 2015, when it was cautiously hoped that a new dawn in bilateral ties was possible and could be round the corner.