The swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi as the 15th Prime Minister provided India an opportunity to invite the leaders of the member States of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to grace the occasion on May 26 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, official residence of the President of India.
Since Pakistan is the second biggest member-State of SAARC and its strained relationship with India, the third largest economy of the world, hampers the free flow of movements of people and goods among all member States, the Indian and international media had focused on the outcome of the talks between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers.
With this invitation Modi wanted to kill two birds with one stone. If the positive outcome of the first bilateral talks between Modi and Nawaz Sharif would have helped create an atmosphere of increased mutual confidence, it would also have encouraged the SAARC bus to run faster.
Hence, there was much expectation in diplomatic circles from the historic step taken by Modi to invite Sharif, who incidentally had won the election last year on the plank of deeper economic relations with India as every one in Pakistan knows that good economic and trade exchanges between the two neighbours will improve the living standard of the common people. The Pakistan economy, which has been shattered by terrorism, nurtured domestically by the Army establishment, needs urgently to befriend India and seize the opportunity offered by the new Indian leadership.
So when the two Prime Ministers met in the hallowed palace, the Hyderabad House, political observers expected the ice to be broken and melted, which remained frozen since the November 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on Mumbai.
Undoubtedly the ice has been broken, with the decision to ask the two Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan to remain in touch, two years after their last bilateral talks, but it would not be wrong to say that it simply has been broken in two pieces and the ice will not be melted as long as Pakistan remains oblivious of its responsibilities as a responsible State in the comity of nations to stop nurturing the terrorist elements on its soil. Though, Sharif has left India with a ray of hope by stating before media that his government stands ready to discuss all issues between the two countries, in a spirit of cooperation and sincerity.
However Modi’s message on terrorism was conveyed to Nawaz Sharif in no uncertain terms. He told Nawaz Sharif that relations cannot be normalised in the atmosphere of terrorism. Hence he told him to speed up the trials of the conspirators of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and prevent any further attacks on India launched from the Pakistani soil.
The Pakistani Prime Minister wanted to woo Modi with improved trade exchanges, which in fact means vastly increased exports to Pakistan from India. Only two weeks ago Pakistan through its High Commissioner in New Delhi Abdul Basit had warned India not to set any preconditions for talks to resume. In fact the Pakistani diatribes was in response to the election rhetorics of Modi who had categorically stated that in the deafening sounds of bomb explosions how can two persons talk? So, Modi in his very first day of his tenure as the Prime Minister made a blunt remark to his Pakistani counterpart that Pakistan must listen to India’s concerns on terrorism. Terrorism and talks cannot continue side by side. In fact this was the stand of the previous Manmohan Singh Government but Modi articulated his position in a very frank and forthright manner, which left the Pakistani Prime Minister flabbergasted and he could utter only a very subdued response by saying that accusations and counter accusations will leave us nowhere.
One must give credit to the Pakistani Prime Minister for maintaining his calm and responded in a very passionate manner by reminding Indian leader about his invite to the first BJP-led Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on February 20, 1999, when the famous Lahore Declaration was issued. Sharif said that he would like to pick up the thread he and Vajpayee left in Lahore in 1999. The Lahore Declaration was indeed a foundation of a new paradigm in India-Pakistan relations. In that spirit he uttered to the waiting media in New Delhi after his talks with Modi “This provides us the opportunity of meeting the hopes and aspirations of our peoples that we will succeed in turning a new page in our relations.”
One cannot doubt the sincerity of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, but one can certainly doubt his ability to deliver. In fact last time in 1999 when he made a very valiant effort to remove all bottlenecks in India-Pakistan relations, he was dethroned by the then Army Chief of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf, who later on crowned himself as the President of Pakistan and visited India with olive branch.
When Sharif wanted to accept the invite of the so-called tough talking Modi, the present Chief of Pakistani Army General Raheel Sharif dithered for three days to grant his permission. It is indeed an irony that in a so-called democratic State, the elected Prime Minister of the country had to seek the permission of its Army Chief to visit the neighbouring country. Hence, one can understand the limitations of Sharif. He cannot afford to antagonise the Army Chief and lose his job. Last time when he dared to challenge the Army Headqaurters he was not only dethroned but jailed and later exiled to Saudi Arabia. One wonders if Sharif would dare to challenge the Army bosses in his very second year of Prime Ministership to have cordial relations with India.
So, when the Indian Prime Minister asked Sharif to take care of India’s concerns on terrorism, one cannot say with certainty that he will deliver on India’s concerns. However, though the ice has been broken, without getting melted, one can remain sceptical of the ability of the democratic government of Pakistan to continue its engagement with India in an atmosphere free of terrorism.