We must assume, however, that the Pakistan army is, this time, on board
History, sometimes, seems to be an accumulation of moments. Few have been as spectacular as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to “drop by” and visit his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on a happy personal occasion in Lahore on his way to Delhi from Kabul. It might be stretching similes to note that Prime Minister Modi literally appeared out of the blue; but that phrase describes the political aspect well. The impact, through the subcontinent and across the world, was extraordinary precisely because it was unexpected.
It was a diplomatic coup that required courage, imagination and skill on both sides. An uncertain Pak PM Nawaz Sharif would never have slipped an invitation into a telephone conversation; and a timid Indian PM would not have accepted. A new chapter in the troubled narrative of India-Pakistan relations cannot be written by a single author. But for the chapter to proceed, both authors have to be on the same page.
One reward was instant. I am sure that both leaders were confident that public opinion would be behind them, but the scale of positivity has been overwhelming. It reflects a deep urge among people to rediscover the relationships of culture and kinship that has been stolen from their destiny by the conflicts of the last century. It is a strange fact of human behaviour that war has rarely sought the protection of reason. The people of the subcontinent are tired of war. They understand, much more than many leaders, the immense benefits of peace.
Sadly, the desire for peace does not mean that one will always find it. Indeed, the management of a peace process requires even more care than the conduct of war. Peace is fragile. Prime Minister Modi, remarkably, began his term in office by creating yet another transformative moment when, in 2014, he invited SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. That moment was buried by vested interests. The wonder is that another beginning has become possible so soon, for India-Pak relations are better known for stagnation or regression than progress. It will require time, patience and the will to deal with saboteurs to find a way towards a mutually acceptable interim understanding on the complex problems that bedevil this relationship. There are signs that a coalition of extremists has already launched a campaign to derail Nawaz Sharif. He knows the risks. He has been there before.
We must assume, however, that the Pakistan army is, this time, on board. Equally heartening is the fact that mainstream political parties in Pakistan have been supportive. Imran Khan has been enthusiastic. In our country, the people are with our Prime Minister; unfortunately, parties like Congress, which are unable to draw a distinction between the national interest and partisan politics, are indulging in kneejerk criticism. Perhaps it is no surprise that the comments of some of their leaders are downright childish. That might be the way to upward mobility. Contrast this with the maturity shown by Marxist parties. The Communists have no love lost for Prime Minister Modi. But both CPI and CPI-M have welcomed his initiative, and the opportunity this offers to lift the subcontinent out of the septic quagmire of conflict within a nuclear danger zone.
Moments such as these do not emerge from an astrologer’s chart or a magician’s hat. They may fructify on the proverbial spur of the moment, but the seeds have been laid in silence, and fertilized by cautious diplomacy. The groundwork was established when the two PMs met in Ufa in July this year, and fertilized in Paris on 30 November. The first green shoots were visible, suddenly, when National Security Advisers of the two countries met in Bangkok. This became a sapling when Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Islamabad on 8 and 9 December for the “Heart of Asia” ministerial conference on Afghanistan and met Nawaz Sharif.
Politicians who reach office through the democratic process understand the heartbeat of public sentiment. This is their great strength, and the significant asset that makes them far better leaders than those thrust into power through despotic methods. They also understand the need to nurture environment. One grave obstacle to an India-Pakistan dialogue has been the ability of hawks to control the public discourse by stoking the fire of fear and trying to turn it into a conflagration of hatreds. The bonhomie in Lahore has, effectively, transformed the climate. The masterstroke lies in the fact that this was pre-emptive climate change.
We can be hopeful that the process will culminate in a visit by Prime Minister Modi to the Saarc summit next year, to be held in Pakistan. There is an old Sufi answer to an eternal question: What do we do when trapped in a vicious circle? The conventional response is to break the circle. The Sufis had a different approach. Draw a larger circle, and you will find the space for manoeuvre.
SAARC is that larger circle.