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India needs a new focus on Afghanistan

By Anand K. Sahay:

In a basic sense, India-Pakistan relations are cut in a groove made by history, the way Pakistan has evolved into being subservient to its military-security establishment, and latterly the bitterness in the tone of politics which set in after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Our relations with friendly Afghanistan have also been compromised by the dark Pakistan factor. The year ahead potentially offers breathing room with Pakistan, though new forgings can be said to be in the works at best, in spite of Prime Minister Modi’s recent sudden dash. With Afghanistan, the period ahead offers better scope than the past year and a half, a period of marking time. But much would depend on India’s creativity in negotiating the heartland of Afghan politics, and the manner of nurturing friends across the board and the understanding of their particular needs and interests, going beyond broad-brush treatment.

Some discussion is also pertinent on the salience of seeing ‘AfPak’ as a zone- quite apart from the bilateral dynamics with Kabul and Islamabad- deserving particular consideration in official thinking, say in the manner of the Americans though with greater concentration and focus. For the US, these are distant lands in which to meddle, for India it is its immediate neighbourhood which impacts its well-being.

As Mr. Modi noted in Kabul on December 25, if fires engulf Afghanistan, it is not only the Afghans who will be singed but a whole region. In that sense, the Afghans are waging a wider battle, on our behalf as well, and they deserve our unstinted backing- along with others if possible, and this would be ideal, but alone if necessary.

As for Pakistan, so far, only a special and monumental circumstance – such as 1971- has budged ties. It shocks men and women of goodwill and expectation on both sides that normal talks, negotiations, discussions, and expressions of resolve for better relations emanating from wise leaders, have tended to be generally barren, not producing long-term gains. Even a shock such as Kargil didn’t shake the system enough. Nuclearisation of the subcontinent brought some newness to the logic of low-intensity conflict, but no more than that.

The sanity that remains in spite of the charged relationship is due entirely to the basic good sense of ordinary people and their deepest awareness of the heritage and civilisation they hold in common, though there are elements in Pakistan whose ideology seeks to reject this fundamental truth.

Goodwill gestures- even when dramatic and unexpected- such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Christmas Day “stopover” in Lahore (the same day that he was in Kabul) to greet Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif on his birthday perhaps do help to leaven a certain hardness. Much of this had set in all of this year that is about to fade, and existed right through the previous year. That offers some room for Mr. Modi’s hullo-good bye diplomacy and keeps it germane.

But it would be wide-eyed innocence to look any deeper into that well-meaning move, which met the criterion set by Pakistan. Islamabad had said India had interrupted the NSA-level talks (on account of the factor of the undue Pakistani solicitousness to Kashmiri separatist leaders) in September, and it must take the first step to get back on track.

Mr. Modi showed the wisdom- and it must be said humility- not to reject this logic. He spoke with Mr. Sharif off his own bat in Paris on November 30, followed this up with appropriate bureaucratic moves and foreign minister-level talks, and has now cut a bit of dash with his flying visit to Lahore.

But deeper diplomacy is not the same as dramatics, no matter how much the latter may appeal to the senses. RSS leader Ram Madhav, on deputation to the BJP, will be well-advised to be less exuberant. In the Prime Minister’s Raiwind sojourn to greet Mr. Sharif in his 400-acre home on the outskirts of Lahore, the former RSS spokesman sees the seeds of “Akhand Bharat”, with Pakistan and Bangladesh melding in harmony with India.

Someone on high should ask him to pipe down and not undo through foolish ideological stubbornness what little his Prime Minister is attempting to do in the realm of the practical. Let RSS representatives not become the mirror image of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s Hafiz Sayeed, who has been angered by the Indian leader’s trip to Lahore’s outskirts and has asked his own Prime Minister not to let his “friendship” with Mr. Modi obstruct Pakistan’s interests.

Mr. Sharif’s foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz has appropriately sounded a note of caution. He urges us to tamp down expectations. He is being realistic. He is right to note that if, in the first instance, some calm can be established on the border, the resulting peace can potentially create conditions for “connectivity projects”, say those linked to oil (and presumably the TAPI gas). Mr. Aziz is well aware that the Pakistan establishment goes beyond the elected civilians and indirectly embraces the likes of Lashkar chief whose ties to the Deep State are common knowledge.

It is a pity that the frothiness produced Mr. Modi’s dramatic Lahore fly-in- sadly within BJP’s thinking circles too, and not excluding external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who is bubbling over in hyperbolic fashion like a child about it, has tended to eclipse the value of the fine address- crafted with skill and some lyricism by Mr. Modi’s speech-writers- of the Prime Minister at the inauguration of the building of Afghanistan’s Parliament constructed by India.

If ties with Pakistan are perpetually a fabrication in the foundry stage, the PM’s Kabul address is imbued with seeds of policy. For the first time, India has spoken of uniting in “trust and cooperation” with Pakistan (and of course, Iran, an old friend) in the Afghan theatre. The Deep State has nurtured violent forces to take over in Kabul, if possible, and is unlikely to succumb to the lure of the robustness of Mr. Modi’s approach. But for the first time an Indian leader has all but directly called on the Taliban- without naming it- to venture on the project of national reconciliation by giving up the gun and placing trust in the ballot box. This calls for elaboration on the ground in the year ahead.


The writer is a senior Indian journalist.

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