Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise ‘goodwill’ visit to Lahore for a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, on his way home from Moscow and Kabul, comes as a hopeful sign for Pak-India peace process.
In fact, Modi had signalled a change in his hard-liner policy towards this country when he held a similarly unexpected meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris that led to the two countries foreign secretaries’ meeting, in the presence of national security advisers, in Bangkok, and later Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Pakistan to attend the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan.
Significant headway was made during her visit with the two sides deciding to restart the long-stalled composite dialogue, renamed Bilateral Composite Dialogue. As a result, foreign secretaries are already scheduled to meet in Islamabad next month. And the agenda, aside from various other outstanding issues of conflict, includes Kashmir.
As encouraging as these developments are the obvious question is that, what has brought about a sudden softening in Modi government’s Pakistan policy? After all, Modi is the same person who made a career out of Pakistan bashing, and soon after coming to power in New Delhi tried to put Pakistan under incessant pressure by escalating ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary.
There is more than one explanation. First, the pressure did not work. Second, India’s influential foreign friends are believed to have been persuading the Indian Prime Minister to retch down tensions with Pakistan lest things spin out of control between the two nuclear armed countries.
Third, those friends also want to see a reduction in Pak-India tensions to ease resolution of the Afghan conflict. Fourth, and most compelling of all reasons seems to be the economic interest. India’s corporate sector, which played a significant role in Modi’s election as prime minister, has been eager to grasp business opportunities in Afghanistan and the region beyond.
In fact, press reports point out that an Indian steel industry consortium has been negotiating with the Pakistan government for transporting iron ore – an agreement has already been signed with the Afghan government – from Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province to Karachi for onwards shipment to ports in India.
The alternative route of Iran is longer and much more expensive. Notably, a steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal, said to have personal relations with PM Sharif’s family, is reported to have played a role in facilitating an unpublicised Nawaz-Modi meeting on the sidelines of 2014 Saarc Summit in Kathmandu; and he was present in Lahore too for the ‘goodwill’ visit.
Further reinforcing that point is the fact that during her stay in Islamabad Foreign Minister Swaraj – one of the hard-liners who sabotaged the previous BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s proposed peace agreement at Agra with the then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf – while “extending India’s hand towards Pakistan” had underscored the need for increased connectivity and regional trade via Pakistan.
More importantly, in his address to the Afghan parliament Modi also emphasized improvement in regional connectivity, and expressed the hope that “Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan, and beyond.” Given that economic interest over-rides most other foreign policy considerations everywhere, Modi’s peace initiative seems to be inspired by genuine considerations.
However, in view of the historical baggage and the complex issues of contention between the two countries, the peace process can be expected to move forward in baby steps rather than big leaps. Arguably, Prime Minister Modi’s surprise Pakistan visit was, however, no big leap; nor was it a baby step. The situation, therefore, explains the complexity of bilateral relationship that is historically characterized by hatred, mutual suspicion and rancor.