India’s cancellation of Foreign Secretary level talks with Pakistan, after Islamabad’s envoy in New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists despite Government opposition, has led to much concern over how the larger peace process between the two countries will now unravel. Some commentators have cheered the move as a strong step taken by a purposeful Government – they say it’s a welcome break from the spineless foreign policy pursued by the UPA in particular and past regimes in general. After all, which legitimate state power will tolerate a foreign government courting separatist leaders on its territory?
Besides, in the present case, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh had personally conveyed to the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi, Abdul Basit, the Government of India’s opposition to his meeting with separatist leaders. She had given him a clear choice: Either you talk to us or you to talk to them. Once the High Commissioner hosted Shabir Shah on Monday (he also held talks with Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq on Tuesday), the Government had no choice but to call off the 25th August meeting. Had it not done so, Pakistan would have assumed that it was bluffing, which this Government clearly wasn’t .
On the other side of the debate are commentators who believe that the decision to call off the talks exposes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic inexperience. Meetings between Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani diplomats and politicians have been the norm for several years now but, while some administrations in New Delhi facilitated such interactions and others merely tolerated it, none has thrown such a tantrum. The nay-sayers also point out that New Delhi’s reaction has once again brought Kashmir to the forefront of the India-Pakistan bilateral, thereby damaging the peace process template that has been in use since 1997. They fear that letting irritants play up in this fashion, will take both countries back to a time when there were no talks at all because New Delhi and Islamabad couldn’t get past Kashmir.
And then there are others who have opined that in the larger scale of things, one cancelled meeting between Foreign Secretaries is no big deal, and this episode should push the Modi Government to re-imagine India’s Pakistan policy, which, for all practical purposes is non-existent. Ask yourself: Does New Delhi have a plan of action with regard to Pakistan that will lead to some sort of a convergence of interests for both parties? Agreed, Pakistan will have to contribute its fair share but what is India’s gameplan anyway? As of now, not a whole lot.
Each of the above narratives has its own pros and cons, however, they all have one thing in common – viewing the recent developments through a foreign policy prism. Now, while there are, of course, key foreign policy elements in this, this latest crisis is, first and foremost, of a domestic nature. This is true for both India and Pakistan and their respective responses to the situation.
The Pakistani side of the story should be fairly obvious to just about anyone watching the news that’s coming in from Islamabad. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Government is effectively under siege. Opposition leader Imran Khan and the maverick Canadian cleric Tahirul Qadri have led thousands of their supporters onto the national capital, where they have been parked for days, demanding the resignation of Sharif. Khan has charged the Prime Minister with electoral fraud and claimed, a whole year after Sharif was sworn into office with an overwhelming majority, that he does not have the mandate to govern.
Irrespective of the substance in Khan’s charges, his so-called protest movement, fuelled by a romanticised idea of a revolution, is by far the most significant political challenge to the Sharif Government. While it is unlikely that Khan will bring about a regime change on his own, the situation may take a turn for the worse if the military, which up until now has been watching the show from the sidelines, steps into the fray. Against this backdrop, Sharif naturally wants the Army on his side. In other words, he will not pick a fight with the Army on a foreign policy issue at this time, least of all on one that is as close to the hearts of the generals in Rawalpindi as the Kashmir dispute. If anything, now is when he allows the Army even more leeway on such issues – as the provocative cross-border firing along the Line of Control (which, incidentally, became fewer since the talks were called off) stands proof.
From the Indian point of view, the ongoing turbulence in Pakistan is, of course, reason enough to be sceptical of the possibility for any meaningful dialogue. But the government’s strong stance on the separatist issue is a message primarily aimed at the domestic constituency in Jammu and Kashmir. The State goes to the poll in about three months time, and Modi has to ensure a free and fair election. Polls in the State are a contentious affair, given the separatists’ vociferous and violent opposition to the democratic exercise which they see as an ‘imposition’ of Indian statehood. However, since former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had managed to conduct the elections without an ensuing bloodbath, Modi cannot allow the separatists to disrupt the election (as they surely will try, doubly hard) under his watch.
Moreover, Modi also has his eyes on the State Legislature. The Bharatiya Janata Party did remarkably well in Jammu and Kashmir in the Lok Sabha election early this year – it won three of the State’s six parliamentary seats in Udhampur, Ladakh and Jammu (where a relatively junior BJP leader, Mr Jitendra Singh, defeated veteran Congress leader, UPA Union Minister and former State Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad by a veritable margin of 60,000 votes).
Together, these Lok Sabha seats add up to 41 Assembly seats. If the BJP can add three more seats to its kitty, it will have a simple majority in the State Legislature and will be able to form the Government in Jammu & Kashmir for the first time in its history. Named ‘Mission 44+’, the BJP’s electoral strategy was launched with much fanfare last month by president Amit Shah who himself is on a winning high having delivered Uttar Pradesh, where the party had almost no presence for decades, during the Lok Sabha election. There is a solid chance that he will win Jammu and Kashmir for the BJP as well (more so, since the other traditional political players in the State, such as the Congress and the National Conference are in tatters). For now, it makes complete sense for Modi to focus on this project, which is a low hanging fruit.