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What happened during Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit to Pakistan and why it still matters

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Disappointed with the cancellation of talks with India, Pakistan says ‘nothing substantive was discussed’ during Narendra Modi’s 2015 trip.

In the roller-coaster ride that has been the India-Pakistan relationship since Narendra Modi took office four years ago, much has been made of the Prime Minister’s last-minute visit to Lahore in December 2015 to wish then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attend his granddaughter’s wedding.

In the wake of last week’s confirmation of foreign minister’s talks between India and Pakistan – and its bizarre cancellation within 24 hours – the Modi 2015 visit to Lahore has come up again and again.

The Modi machine really has no explanation for the confirmation-cancellation, nor for the odd statement the ministry of external affairs issued castigating Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

RSS acolytes say there was no way the Narendra Modi government – given the brouhaha that was going to take place on ‘Surgical Strikes Day’ as well as on the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks later in November – could be seen to be taking a soft stand on Pakistan, given the several elections coming up.

Also read: Modi govt has turned surgical strikes into a shareable post for a selfie stick generation

BJP spokespersons have no real explanation either. In the bargain, the fact that India’s image has taken a beating also evokes a shrug of the shoulders.

The BJP’s only defence is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, time and again, has wanted to improve relations with Pakistan. But each time he is thwarted. The 2015 visit to Lahore has special cachet – and rightly so. No other prime minister has taken the trouble to go against his own grain and visit a country he has often enough designated as an enemy.

Indian officials have implied that Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lahore was pre-planned and discussed with the Pakistani side. The Prime Minister put himself in the hands of the Pakistan army and the ISI whose pilots flew the chopper that took him from Lahore airport to Nawaz Sharif’s home in the outskirts of Raiwind – a short, ten-minute ride, but in their hands nevertheless.

Nobody does this, Indian officials have said, without prior planning.

Also read: Pakistan wanted to offer India easy access to top Sikh shrine at New York talks

But now it seems as if Modi’s 2015 trip to Lahore was hardly the deliberate and thought-through visit that it has been made out to be. Modi’s decision to drop in on Nawaz Sharif was completely spontaneous and sudden.

In an interview with ThePrint last week, Nawaz Sharif’s close aide and special advisor Tariq Fatemi confirmed that Sharif was taken “totally by surprise” when he received a call from Modi that December in 2015.

Tariq Fatemi: “(He) told my PM (Nawaz Sharif) that he had finished his official visit in Afghanistan and was flying back from Kabul to Delhi and wanted to stop over and have a cup of coffee. The PM said great, wonderful, we would be delighted. But he pointed out that he was not in Islamabad (but) in Lahore for the wedding of his granddaughter.
And Mr Modi said well that’s fine, we do visit our friends when they are celebrating these occasions.”
ThePrint: “So there was no pre-planning…”
Fatemi: “The fact is that neither Mr Sartaz Aziz (advisor to the PM on foreign affairs) nor I as a special advisor to the PM were there… both of us were in Islamabad. But my prime minister felt that it was an act of graciousness on the part of Mr Modi to tell him that he was passing, flying over Pakistan and wanted to drop in for a cup of coffee. And he came in, it was more of a family event, the entire family was gathered. He went to the prime minister’s residence in Lahore, they had a coffee, snacks, nice chit-chat, family discussions with all members of the extended family from my prime minister’s side. And to my knowledge, there was no discussion on the substantive issues.
So the visit was taken more as a social call, as a courtesy call…But it was not seen as an Indian initiative to re-open the stalled dialogue process.”

Three years later, why is it important to set the record straight?

First of all, because the Modi government has been playing fast and loose on its Pakistan policy. There has been absolutely no consistency in its views regarding Pakistan. It is completely unclear – and the last confirmation and cancellation of talks within 24 hours is proof – what Modi wants from Pakistan or what he thinks or believes India must do.

If Pakistan was a small, dysfunctional state somewhere in the Indo-Pacific, somewhere near Nauru – whose president, Baron Divavesi Waqa has himself sung a few lines from Gandhi’s favourite hymn, “Vaishnav jana toh…” – it wouldn’t matter.

But it’s not. It lies on India’s western border. It has nuclear weapons. It has an army that is totally in control and a prime minister who is in bed with the army and several terrorists, including Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed– that should be enough reason to hold talks.

Also read: India & Pakistan have potential to do bilateral trade worth $37 billion: World Bank

Instead, the Modi government is bragging that “all Indian missions abroad” were told to get one or another local artiste to perform Gandhi’s favourite bhajan. The result, a five-minute, soul-stirring medley sung by artistes “from Armenia to Angola, from Sri Lanka to Serbia, Iraq to Iceland” is simply awesome.

But is it foreign policy?

Many would say yes, that a country’s soft power is as important as its hard power in terms of expanding influence. But India’s missions abroad have spent so much time these past four years in showcasing the Modi Project, such as International Yoga Day or the ongoing promotion of Hindi across the world that one wonders about the time and energy spent on these otherwise wonderful endeavours.

The bald truth is that this magnificent effort in taking Gandhi’s favourite hymn to the world is as much about Modi — as it is about Gandhi.

The Modi government believes it has been successful in pacifying the Chinese at Wuhan – that may be true, except that China and Pakistan are “iron brothers” and Islamabad is more a client state of Beijing than anything else.

The Modi government believes that President Trump is fed up with Pakistan’s double standards on the Taliban and Afghanistan – that is perfectly true, except that the road to Kabul lies via Rawalpindi, and the only alternative, Iran, is currently being sanctioned by Washington.

The Modi government believes that its old and trusted friend, Russia, will always bail it out in times of trouble – that is likely the truth, except that Moscow is building its own bridges with Islamabad, including the offer of a civil radar to protect its nuclear installations.

Keep your enemies close, the Chinese scholar Sun Tzu said – or is believed to have said.

It baffles the mind that the Modi government is unable or unwilling to think through beyond the 24-hour life-cycle of its own insecurities.

As for India-Pakistan, Tariq Fatemi put it best:

“We deny India’s allegations and accusations firmly and strongly. But even if they were true, we believe that Imran Khan’s new government has taken over and taken an initiative – let’s sit down and talk about all these accusations. The act of the meeting itself would have brought down the temperature, the public rhetoric would have become lower, the media hype would have been reduced, and it would all have been very positive. We are truly surprised and disappointed,” he said.

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  1. Jyoti has to just write that she does not like Modi and that should suffice. I don’t know how Modi or for that matter, Rahul can change equation between China and Pakistan or change circumstances in which USA finds itself in Pak Afghanistan. Modi’s Pakistan policy is to blow hot and cold, knowing fully well that nothing can change between India and Pakistan, until Pakistan is fully obliterated, given the visceral hatred of India by pakis and total control of the country by its army whose existence depends on showcasing India as its life threatening enemy. While we can’t geography, it doesnot mean we can and should future, irrespective of history. We should the cauldron boil and keep blowing hot and cold with Pak and wait for it to destroy itself. We should treat it as a vassal state of China and treat the entire west, north and east as Chinese bordering us. We can have a much focused and effective defence strategy for us, once we do this. Shallow and biased article like this one take us nowhere.

  2. i find it petty of such an imminent stalwart to do net picking of India’s Foreign Policy. If everyone in our foreign missions has been busy celebrating modi events since past 4 years then how have we managed to get STA-1 status ? how did we manage to get the premier of entire african countries to india in 2015-15, how did india manage to get yoga become a part of UN world day ? how did we managed to convince Saudi Arabia to not charge ‘On-Time Delivery Premium charges’ on Crude Oil… how did we work covertly with the military, election commissioner & & put additional pressure by putting our navy warships right next to mauritius to ensure Yameen does not rig the election results …
    how did we keep china at bay in dokhlam….or managed to pull out so many people from worn torn Yemen to name a few …last 4 years have been full of some meaningful achievements…yes off-course, along the way they have been some faux-pax but to put everything that’s gone wrong at Modi’s door step is not only naive but unbecoming of individuals who despise Modi

  3. The only two delegations in the UNGA which understand the other Foreign Minister’s speech without an interpreter are India and Pakistan. So it is a pity there is so much polemic and mutual recrimination on display each year. It does nothing for the bilateral relationship. It also wedges the hyphen more firmly between India and Pakistan, far away from China, which should be our long term objective. The other low hanging fruit is to rein in the in house channels, switch off the daily outpouring of vitriol. No one expects Kashmir to be “ solved “ or friendship to dawn over the subcontinent within one government’s tenure, it is a slow, patient grind, but more could have been attempted and achieved. Even internally, Kashmir could have been in a more harmonious space. Whether all of this will result in any political / electoral dividend is hard to judge.

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