For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the road to peace with Pakistan will likely pass through Maharashtra. A creditable performance in the Assembly election to be held on 15 October will have consequences far beyond the ordinary, setting him on a trajectory that few could rival.
How well the BJP performs in Maharashtra will determine the following:
♦ Balance of power between his government, on the one hand, and the party and its ideological mentor, the RSS, on the other. A handsome win in Maharashtra, leading to the installation of a government with the BJP playing a key role in it, will further cement his authority in the party and vis-à-vis the RSS. But for that to happen, first Modi and his protégé Amit Shah’s gambit of going it alone in Maharashtra will need to pay off. A BJP win will also silence some, if not all, of his sceptics, critics and naysayers who wondered whether the party’s unprecedented win in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha election was a flash in the pan or the result of a carefully-crafted strategy executed by Shah, who, as BJP president, now represents a formidable duopoly along with Modi. No doubt, therefore, that the results of the Maharashtra election will be an acid test for the duo
♦ The extent to which Modi would be able to free himself from the pulls and pressures from the BJP, the RSS and their core constituents (who run the risk of becoming restive if Prime Minister Modi doesn’t quite continue to catch their fancy as much as Candidate Modi) and go about fulfilling his mandate, that of delivering on his promise of a fast-track development agenda, putting the economy back on rails and creating jobs, among others. Modi could go in for a reshuffle of his council of ministers, too; and
♦ Last but not the least, whether Modi will be able to transcend the dichotomy between his image and reality and steer his government’s foreign and security policies, particularly vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, in a direction he wants to
The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit to be hosted by Nepal in November will pose a challenge and an opportunity for Modi. The summit, sandwiched as it will be between the Assembly election that would have concluded by then in Maharashtra and the Assembly election due in Jammu and Kashmir, could well see Modi hold a meeting with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
While a favourable result in Maharashtra would likely shape Modi’s “intent” to re-engage with Sharif, the talks, structured or otherwise, could well go on to impact the “outcome” of the Jammu and Kashmir election, whenever they are held. Not only would re-engaging with Pakistan find a resonance in the Kashmir Valley, it could induce a salutary response from a section of the voters, if not towards the BJP then at least to one of its potential allies.
If the Modi-Shah duo redeem themselves in Maharashtra after a less-than-spectacular performance in the 54 Assembly constituencies across 14 states (Uttarakhand in July; Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka in August; and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Sikkim in September) where bypolls were held since the BJP-led NDA came to power on 26 May, then a possible meeting with Sharif on the sidelines of the SAARC summit could lay the groundwork for resumption of talks between the officials of the two countries, to begin with.
India called off foreign secretary-level talks a week before they were to have been held in Islamabad on 25 August, after Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit went ahead with his meeting with a Hurriyat representative disregarding New Delhi’s objections. Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the Pakistan PM on national security and foreign affairs, has since said that probably the meetings with Hurriyat representatives were a mistake and they could have been avoided. For his part, Basit has said that in diplomacy one leaves the door ajar, implying that talks in the future could not be ruled out.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj echoed similar sentiments at her maiden press conference in September, when she said, “Diplomacy mein kabhi bhi poorna viraam nahin lagta, there is no full stop in diplomacy. It’s always (a) comma or semicolon. And, after all this, people always move forward. There are no full stops in (the) diplomatic journey.”
As if on cue, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval held talks with Basit on 13 September. This was followed by a meeting between Basit and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh a few days later.
For his part, Modi iterated in his United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speech, “I am prepared to engage in a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan in a peaceful atmosphere, without the shadow of terrorism, to promote our friendship and cooperation. However, Pakistan must also take its responsibility seriously to create an appropriate environment. Raising issues in this forum is not the way to make progress towards resolving issues between our two countries.”
The message to Islamabad was clear: Choose between the Hurriyat or the Indian government, and between bilateral engagement and raking up outstanding issues in international fora. Although the two PMs did not meet in New York on the margins of the UNGA later that month, they could meet in Kathmandu.
A meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu seems “unavoidable”, says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “Provided there is no major provocation” from the Pakistani side between now and the summit on 26- 27 November, he hastens to add. Sibal was in office when India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement in November 2003.
MK Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat, feels that either side could have pleaded scheduling difficulties in New York but a Modi-Sharif meeting in Kathmandu “cannot be avoided”. He says that it will be embarrassing for Modi if he does not follow up on his talks with Sharif in May, when the latter was invited to New Delhi for the inauguration of Modi as PM.
A strategic analyst with a New Delhi-based think-tank, who did not want to be identified, said that a bilateral meeting would be par for the course but cautioned that should Modi decide to meet Sharif in Kathmandu, they should go beyond restating their respective positions. Otherwise what purpose would be served by only exchanging courtesies? he asked.
Some others cite the asymmetry between the two prime ministers (Modi came to power riding on the back of a huge mandate while Sharif has been rendered weak even as the Pakistani Army gains in influence) to question the wisdom of exploring the possibility of talks.
If the two principals indeed hold a meeting next month, the expectation in some quarters is that it will be followed by an announcement that their foreign secretaries would either meet soon or that they will remain in touch and explore how to move forward.
However, repeated ceasefire violations (more than 150 this year) by Pakistan at the border and the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, which claimed the lives of five innocent Indians on 6 October — the highest toll in one day since 2003 — and left some injured, has compelled the BJP to take a position that is patently different from that of its predecessor, which was perceived to be soft on Pakistan.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned Pakistan to stop violating the 2003 ceasefire agreement. India, he said, will not tolerate Pakistan’s ceasefire violations anymore and that it should understand the reality that times have changed in India (“Zamaana badal gaya hai”).
Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, in turn, said that the Indian Army was “fully ready” and was responding to the Pakistani provocations.
The Indian Army and the Border Security Force say they retaliated effectively with the same calibre weapons used by Pakistan to repeatedly violate the ceasefire, which was variously described by security sources as an attempt by Pakistan to push in infiltrators into India before winter set in, with a view to disturbing the peace ahead of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly polls; to deflect attention from political turmoil inside Pakistan; and to keep the Kashmir issue alive and not allow it to recede into the background.
In spite of the recent provocations by Pakistan, a resounding victory at the hustings in Maharashtra could yet resolve Modi’s Hamletian dilemma of how to solve the Pakistan conundrum.