If PM seeks permanence in South Asian diplomatic history, the path must be drawn by his head and not heart.
Narendra Modi is completely dissimilar from Atal Bihari Vajpayee though both are from the same political stable. The former was an unabashed Hindu Hriday Samrat holding the placard of Vikas Purush when he became prime minister.
Former Indian prime minister Vajpayee’s description as the “right man” in the “wrong party” defined his persona. Yet both began their engagement with Pakistan by reversing the previous government’s line. Within two months of assuming office, Vajpayee tested the “Bomb” and reversed the warmth of IK Gujral-Nawaz Sharif summit at Male when “eight issues” were listed and the Composite Dialogue Process started. Prime Minister Modi invited Sharif along with other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders for his swearing-in ceremony but there was no mistaking that the prime seats in the gallery were for the Pakistani delegation. The invite and its acceptance ended months of deadlock between India and Pakistan.
Vajpayee’s message to the world was that he was no wimp and Modi’s is that he’s no rabble-rouser but a leader to make history. What better way to do this than by hugging the premier of the nation whose president he once derided in speeches?
Vajpayee and Modi are linked by a remarkable consistency of vacillating between hard and soft lines on Pakistan. Months after the twin nuclear tests, Vajpayee parleyed with Sharif on the idea of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Eventually, he embarked on the bus journey ignoring words of caution from the security establishment. Modi chose to call off foreign secretary level talks last year without as much as consulting his foreign office.Vajpayee stunned his party and the nation by inviting then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for the Agra Summit without preparatory meetings between officials and ministers. Modi went against the grain of his approach to Pakistan by seeking a meeting with Sharif at Ufa, again before testing the waters through officials.
The Agra Summit ended in a fiasco and within six months the Indian subcontinent was declared as the most dangerous place on earth after the attack on the Indian Parliament resulted in the highest-ever mobilisation of troops along the border. Yet, Vajpayee pursued peace and towards the end of his tenure restarted the Composite Dialogue Process during the SAARC summit in Islamabad in January, 2004.
Vajpayee wanted to leave his stamp of peace on the subcontinent and amid the immediate euphoria over the Lahore Declaration there were suggestions that the two premiers be jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Modi is on record saying that Akhand Bharat is not his desired goal as it would change the demographic superiority of the Hindus. His geostrategic goal, therefore, is to do “kuch naya” that is headline-grabbing and can be mounted on a big canvas like his programmes from Swachh Bharat to Digital India. Such grandiose acts, he hopes will earn kudos from the international community.
Modi faces the same quandary as Vajpayee on alienating the domestic constituency. The Sangh Parivar garners votes by promoting the fear of the “other” and the projected enemy is often present sarhad ke us paar and has domestic collaborators. Like Vajpayee, Modi too is a poet – a bad one at that. But foreign policy, especially treacherous ties like India-Pakistan cannot be driven my metaphors and similes. I remember a terse comment made by the former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh after the Agra Summit. He argued that summits must be scheduled only after the entire legwork has been done.
If issues are not decided beforehand, the result is mostly a deadlock or disaster. There is also a need to learn from past mistakes. The Indian government claims that what was read out at the end of the Ufa meeting was not a joint statement. As far as diplomacy goes, consistency is not a virtue of fools. There is no scope for delusions to being either a peacenik or cartographer of a new sub-continental map. If Modi seeks permanence in South Asian diplomatic history, the path must be drawn by his head and not heart.