Edition : April 2015

What After Saarc Yatra

The ‘Saarc Yatra’ of the foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, undertaken early in March at the behest of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, who is also the de facto foreign minister of the country, had attracted wide attention because Islamabad was going to be one of his stops in that journey. His next destination, Kabul, was of no less importance, but it was barely noticed by the Indian media.

India had frozen talks with Pakistan last August when that country’s high commissioner had socked it in our eyes by talking to the pro-Pakistani Kashmiri separatists just ahead of his scheduled meeting with his Indian counterpart in Delhi. Jaishankar’s visit was taken as a signal that official level contacts with Pakistan were about to be resumed.
But that still looks hazy. The foreign secretary’s visit did not result in any announcement of dates for the next round of high level dialogue between the two countries. A more moot point is that even if a date was announced how purposeful would be another round of talks with Pakistan. Since last August what has emergedis long-term pessimism about any improvement in ties between the ‘arch rivals’. The Modi-run Indian government wants to be seen as ‘tough’ on Pakistan. The civilian government in Pakistan has restored the status quo ante by completely handing over the India policy to the army, which believes in perennial enmity with India. The Pakistani civilian leaders are happily singing their one note samba on Kashmir.
Just after the visit of Jaishankar to Islamabad, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs and national security adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, said that Kashmir will be at the top of agenda whenever India-Pakistan dialogue is resumed. He was merely repeating what every Pakistani has been saying; only he made it official—a pre-condition for resumption of bilateral dialogue.
The Pakistanis have opened a new front of vociferously accusing India of interfering in Balochistan and supporting terrorism in Pakistan. It includes such outlandish allegations as India’s RAW being behind the terrorist attack on an army school in Peshawar last December and Baloch dissidents travelling on Indian passports.
The government of India has not reacted to those charges, perhaps because they are too bizarre to be taken seriously where it matters most for Pakistan: the United States of America. But it does serve to whip up hysteria against India in the land of the pure. As a backup plan, the Pakistanis have also been shrieking about ‘unprovoked’ firing by Indian forces along the line of control and the international border in Jammu and Kashmir which they describe as ‘working boundary’ to advance claims on territories beyond that troubled Indian state.

The former dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf, has volunteered to add fuel to the eternal anti-India fire in his country through a series of interviews to foreign media. In one interview (Guardian) the discredited general (being tried on treason charges, among others) displayed his astonishing grasp of Hinduism by observing how ‘anti-human rights’ is the Hindu religion which allows upper caste men to punish low caste Hindu if their shadow falls on them. No doubt, his own religion, as practised in his country, is a model for human rights, barring the systematic persecution of minorities and summary death sentence for those feigned to have committed the crime of blasphemy.
Pakistanis, despite what the peaceniks say, love to hate India and their paranoia about India is all-pervasive. They are taught to be so from every platform, including religious and educational. After Jaishankar was received by the Pakistani prime minister, a section of the media castigated Nawaz Sharif for receiving a ‘lowly’ Indian official. Enlightened Pakistanis saw it as a ‘national humiliation’.
The toxic anti-India ‘fiza’ (atmosphere) in Pakistan will not change; talks or no talks. Instead of wasting time on talking to the unwilling Pakistanis, the Indian government should be exploring ways to return the compliments. The Modi government, despite its reputation of being ‘hawkish’ on Pakistan, has done very little to act on those lines. Boasting about giving Pakistan a ‘befitting reply’ for its provocations at the LoC and international border is not the kind of language they understand across the western border.
There is a whole range of economic and diplomatic option that can be explored to act ‘tough’ with Pakistan. Its non-cooperation in common Saarc programmes such as land connectivity across the member countries and refusal to honour international obligations has to be exposed.
India could throw hints that Modi would not be able to attend the next Saarc summit due to be held in 2016 in a poisonous anti-India atmosphere. The last, perhaps the only, Indian foreign secretary who could act tough with the Pakistanis was the late ‘Mani’ Dixit. But that was before false ‘Asha’ (hope) of ‘Aman’ (peace) were raised.

Jaishankar is obviously of a different mould but is said to be a good Indian interlocutor. It is doubtful if that quality helps while talking to obdurate Pakistanis. But that quality could serve some useful purpose in dialogues with other Saarc countries, especially those with whom India’s relations have not been very smooth or are likely to be uneven.
One country India has to seriously engage with, rather re-engage, is the newest Saarc member, Afghanistan. Under Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan was a staunch friend and partner of India. But the new Afghan president, Abdul Ghani, seems to have turned his face away from India, deciding to hold Pakistan in tight embrace, instead. Within nine months of taking over, the US-backed Ghani has courted Pakistan and openly snubbed India while he rushes into reconciliatory talks with the Pakistan-backed Taliban.
Kabul was the last stop in the first leg of Jaishankar’s ‘SaarcYatra’. Nothing much has been said about his talks with Afghan leaders, including Ghani. Jaishankar did have an audience with Karzai who talked to him at a greater length than Ghani. It appears certain that there is going to be no change in Afghanistan’s current policy of keeping India at an arm’s length in order to please Pakistan.
India cannot decide about Afghanistan’s friends. But it is a strategically important country for India. After Afghanistan was rid of the dark Taliban rule more than a decade ago, India has pumped in aid worth more than $2 billion, not a small amount. It was gratefully acknowledged by the previous Afghan president. The incumbent Afghan president, of course, does want India to continue to provide cash and material aid, but not expect any friendly gesture in return.
It can be taken for granted that once Ghani has succeeded in including the Taliban in the power equation in his country, anti-Indian, Pakistan-backed ‘non-state actors’ would thrive again in the ravines and caves of Afghanistan. Did Jaishankar take up the issue with the Afghans?

- Atul Cowshish

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