Setting out for New Friends

Twin strategy: Modi wants to woo Muslim nations and bolster Muslim votes in UP.
Twin strategy: Modi wants to woo Muslim nations and bolster Muslim votes in UP.

A Modi doctrine on Pakistan is now visible after two years of Pakistan policy vacillations. It basically has old elements which are newly interpreted.

First is ‘zero tolerance to terror’, which even the Vajpayee government espoused. The Congress in opposition ridiculed it, arguing that a dialogue with Pakistan could not be made so contingent as that would give terrorists veto on the normalization process.

In power, the Congress discovered that dialogue and terror could indeed not subsist if the attack caused widespread loss. Neither of the two governments, however, could devise a counter-strategy to deter future attacks. This was because military options ran into the nuclear conundrum i.e. retaliation could lead to nuclear holocaust. The Vajpayee government retaliated when Parliament was attacked in December 2001 by mass troop mobilization. The Manmohan Singh regime cancelled parleys after coordinated train bombings in Mumbai, a copy of similar strikes in London and Madrid, caused massive carnage. Dialogue was resumed only when a new counter-terrorism mechanism was established.

The Modi government is trying to break out of this catch-22 situation by lowering the threshold of terror tolerance. The Pathankot attack did not cause significant loss of life or assets. But because the planning and abetting was traced to Pakistan, the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators was made an additional precondition to dialogue.
Second, is the new approach to the Hurriyat. It is to have no role in India-Pakistan parleys. Again, past Indian governments have scowled at Pakistan using the Hurriyat as a co-interlocutor. Now, any blatant contact with the Hurriyat during India-Pakistan parleys would be a deal breaker.

India reasons that Pakistan cannot determine the representatives of J&K people when they have elected the government of the state.

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Why should not India have the serving Chief Minister in attendance when talking to Pakistan instead of, or in addition to, the Hurriyat?

Third, is the Modi government’s alacrity in bringing on record, what was whispered in the past, regarding Sino-Pak activities in Gilgit-Baltistan. This would now be on the agenda of talks with both countries, particularly when China itself has conceded in the past in Article 6 of the 1963 Sino-Pakistan border agreement that all understandings were subject to settlement of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.

The doctrine got the Prime Minister’s imprimatur in his Red Fort Independence Day speech. It played well domestically, with social media in a tizzy over the new assertiveness. But there are international ramifications for which the government is calibrating its diplomacy. Besides UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has to issue homilies on peace and security, even the US is beginning to lean on India. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is getting proactive and Pakistan is unleashing a major diplomatic offensive by dispatching two dozen envoys to plead its case over Kashmir. Pakistan senses an opportunity with the widespread protests in the Valley and the approaching session of the UN General Assembly in September.

But both nations have domestic imperatives too. In Pakistan, despite the chief of army staff, Gen Raheel Sharif, announcing retirement when his three-year term ends in November, speculation is rife about an extension. PM Nawaz Sharif would prefer a new appointee as the incumbent has developed an overpowering persona. A strong pitch on Kashmir helps Sharif regain legitimacy that his long medical absence and lackluster performance has dented. The Obama administration may favor a transition too, as the US appears tired of the Pakistan army’s role in Afghanistan. Newly anointed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour’s killing by a US drone and the US urging India to give military assistance to Afghanistan convey a policy shift, transitory though it may be.

The Modi government likewise faces crucial elections in Punjab, with extreme anti-incumbency and UP, where the BJP must score to justify having won there a quarter of its total seats in Parliament. Then, come the elections in Gujarat, which paved Modi’s path to Delhi. What if the Patel agitation, Dalit ire and ineffective successors to Modi cost BJP its ‘model’ state? It is thus not the polls in magazines today, but in states tomorrow that will determine his political standing. Some well-heeled ambassadors in town are quizzing Indian analysts if fueling tension with Pakistan is not a precursor to actual hostilities.

The Modi government’s twin strategy thus is to woo select Muslim nations to counter Pakistani offensive as well as to bolster Muslim votes in UP. Newly drafted Minister of State MJ Akbar spent a week in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, including a pilgrimage to the shrine of Hussain at Karbala. Besides the outreach to the Shia crescent that Iran dominates, the BJP eyes the Shia vote in UP, realizing that Sunnis will largely vote to defeat them. But the UN Security Council has begun examining the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. Akbar may have bitten more than India can diplomatically chew.

Punjab was also covered when Akbar sought help to locate three dozen-odd, mostly Punjabi/Sikh, workers from around Mosul. Minister Sushma Swaraj has been for two years assuring their families that they were alive when the disarray of the IS and military pressure on them makes it highly unlikely that those non-Sunni stragglers can be alive among them. However, in Punjab, it covers the Akali/BJP flanks. Akbar also elicited support from Syria on India’s Kashmir position. ‘Secular’ Muslim nations are a rarity in today’s world.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is another leader holding out against the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam. He began his India visit on August 31. For decades, President Hosni Mubarak was unable to visit and receive an honor conferred by India. But Egypt, the heart and mind of the Arab world, is today worth cultivating again. Many nations stand ready to reconfigure around the idea of religious tolerance and cohabitation, much as once the non-aligned movement cohered around the belief in strategic independence and post-colonial South-South inter-dependence.

But the new outreach to ‘secular’ Muslim nations can only work if Modi aligns his domestic politics with his foreign policy. Merely milking the latter for domestic electoral reasons would be short-sighted and alienate both new and old friends.

(The author, KC Singh, is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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