Modi and Sharif Take a Gamble

Prime Minister Narendra's Modi surprise visit to Lahore has revived once again the oft-desired hope that India and Pakistan will live as friends not adversaries. For that to happen, however, Pakistan's security establishment will need to stop seeing India as the existential threat.

This is not the first time an Indian Prime Minister has extended a hand of friendship towards Pakistan, what is different is the style: a sudden stopover in Lahore on the way back from Kabul. For many this is reminiscent of a phrase by former Indian Premier Dr Manmohan Singh in January 2007: "I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live."

Every Indian Prime Minister has sought to leave an improvement in ties with Pakistan as their key foreign policy legacy. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru repeatedly offered his hand of friendship and so did his successors. Prime MinisterAtal Behari Vajpayee, Prime Minister during the earlier BJP-led NDA government (1999-2004) sought to improve ties with Pakistan. In 1999 he went on a bus yatra to Lahore and made it a point to write in the Visitor's book at the Minar e Pakistan that India and Indians have accepted the creation of Pakistan wish it well. Under Dr Manmohan Singh again India continued this policy and sought to reduce the trust deficit between the two countries. This is because a stable, civilian and democratic Pakistan is in India's national interest.

Mr Nawaz Sharif too came into power in June 2013 seeking to change Pakistan's policy with respect to India and Afghanistan. While in opposition he often spoke of the need for better relations between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, as with previous Pakistani civilian administrations, this time too the Pakistan military-intelligence establishment that runs Pakistan's foreign and security policies has ensured that Mr Sharif is unable to change policies.

Mr Modi's foreign policy is a combination of pomp and show and behind the door secret negotiations. He has spent most of his eighteen months in power traveling around the world, visiting places Indian leaders have ignored and building personal relationships with fellow leaders. Mr Modi and his advisors understand the importance of South Asia to India. India's foreign secretary S. Jaishankar argued that India could not be a leading power if the neighborhood was not with India as "you need your region to root for you."

One of the Mr Modi's first decisions on winning elections in May 2014 was to invite all South Asian heads of government, including Mr Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration. Mr Modi and Mr Sharif have met at a number of international venues in the last eighteen months and attempted to restart the old cycle of rounds of talks and dialogues.

The background for Mr Modi's current trip to Pakistan appears to have been laid over the last few months with his meeting Mr Sharif in Ufa, the re-start of the talks between the two National Security Advisors that took place in Bangkok and the visit by India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Islamabad in early December 2015 to attend the Heart of Asia conference which led to the resumption of talks between the two countries. Again one sees the use of both open and secret diplomacy: the meeting at Ufa was public whereas we were only told about the meeting of the two NSAs after the discussions had taken place.

For the last three weeks starting with the Bangkok talks and the Heart of Asia there have also been a succession of stories in the Indian media and comments by top BJP leaders, both federal and provincial, on how important it is for India to talk to Pakistan. Even leaders of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh - a Hindu chauvinist organization and the ideological mentor organization of the BJP - have spoken of the need for India to talk to Pakistan.

Prime Minister Modi's surprise visit to Pakistan is reminiscent of the 2003 overture by his BJP predecessor Vajpayee. Two years after the failed Agra Summit of 2001 and the 2002 massive troop mobilization on the India-Pakistan borders, in April 2003 Vajpayee "extended a hand of friendship" and hoped that "both sides should decide to live together." This led to the revival of the 2004 composite dialogue process that continued till 2007 and stopped with the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

From the Indian perspective, a democratic and civilian-led Pakistan has multiple benefits. Since 2008 two civilian governments in Pakistan have attempted to improve ties with India. However, they have been unable to do so because of the veto of Pakistan's military-intelligence complex.

This time round Mr Modi's overture to Pakistan appears to be founded on the belief that Pakistan is facing tremendous international pressure not only from the United States and that at a time like this better ties with India would boost the civilian government by improving its global image.

From Delhi's perspective boosting a civilian government would help provide the civilians with leverage over the military-intelligence establishment at a time when the latter is facing pressure from radical groups both domestic and foreign. Restarting talks also opens the prospects of boosting economic and commercial relations and people to people ties that will help change the narrative and eventually lead to peace in the region.

That both Mr Modi and before him Mr Vajpayee chose to come to Lahore, not Islamabad/Rawalpindi, also needs to be pondered upon. By going to Lahore which houses the Minar e Pakistan, the message sent was that Indian leaders wanted Pakistanis to know that India had accepted the creation of Pakistan. Majority of Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baluch and Muhajirs prefer better ties with India. Punjabis are more likely to see India as an existential. The need to target the large Punjabi business community that seeks better ties with India is another reason for choosing Lahore.

However, what both Delhi and Islamabad need to ponder on is that both countries have been through this bonhomie at periodic intervals for almost seven decades. What is going to be different this time round and what will each side undertake to ensure that they deal with the issues critical to each, Kashmir for Pakistan and terrorism for India. Further, will firing across the Line of Control or a terror attack in India lead to suspension of the talks once again?

Meetings alone do not change policies; paradigm shifts are required to do that. For that to happen there needs to be a paradigm shift in how the Pakistani army views India.

In his memoirs Pakistan's first military dictator General Ayub Khan stated that Indian leaders sought to improve people to people ties arguing that this would help build the trust to resolve disputes like Kashmir. However, for Ayub, Pakistan could not allow this to happen because with time people may forget about key issues like Kashmir.

Sixty years later the Pakistani army leadership still believes that if they allow India and Pakistan to improve trade and commercial ties, people to people ties and easier visa policies over time the publics of both countries would forget about issues like Kashmir and war and they would lose their preeminent status in Pakistan as India would no longer be viewed as an existential threat.

This was published first through The Huffington Post