About 370 kilometres separate Yekaterinburg from Ufa in the Ural mountains. A journey by road between the two Russian cities should take a few hours at best but, figuratively, it has taken India and Pakistan six years to traverse that distance. And yet a familiar script has played itself out again, incremental progress notwithstanding.
In 2009, Manmohan Singh and Asif Ali Zardari met in Yekaterinburg when the memories of the 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks were still fresh in the minds of the people of India. The meeting took place a few days after a Pakistani court ordered the release from house arrest of Hafiz Saeed, who is wanted in India in connection with the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Earlier this month, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met at Ufa. If it was the release of Hafiz Saeed then that roiled the talks, now it was Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi being freed from Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail which agitated the Indian mind. (Lakhvi, who, like Saeed, is wanted in India for the 26/11 attacks, was released in April after a court dismissed his detention order.) China’s blocking of a move by India at the United Nations to seek action against Pakistan for releasing Lakhvi provided another backdrop for the talks at Ufa.
“I am happy to meet [you but] my mandate is to tell you that the territory of Pakistan must not be used for terrorism,” was Singh’s terse message to Zardari then. Modi has iterated similar sentiments in his talks with Sharif and in doing so he has done a Manmohan for the second time in recent weeks, first with his deafening silence on Lalitgate and now by re-engaging Pakistan after some false starts — a comparison which is odious to the legion of Modi fans.
A statement issued after the Modi- Sharif meeting held out the promise of the two countries cooperating with each other to eliminate the menace of terrorism from South Asia but as subsequent comments from Sartaz Aziz, the adviser to Sharif on national security and foreign affairs indicate, the progress towards peace will remain notional unless Sharif and, by extension, Pakistan take a leap of faith and reciprocate Modi’s Pakistan gambit.
If, as Amarjit Singh Dulat writes in his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, the last decade was a lost decade insofar as India and Pakistan are concerned because Manmohan Singh “could not grasp the opportunity” of moving on Musharraf’s four-point formula, the onus now is equally on Sharif to guard himself against doing a Manmohan by squandering an opportunity; he must seize the moment, as it were, so that the mandate enjoyed by Modi is not frittered away. And what better way to make a new start than to come good on some of his election promises vis-a-vis India. Few recall that a relevant portion of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party’s 2013 manifesto reads: “The country could be a bridge between energy rich Central Asia and Iran on one side and energy deficit countries like China and India on the other[.] Pakistan can also develop a flourishing transit economy because it provides the shortest land routes from Western China to the Arabian Sea, through the Gwadar port, while linking India with Afghanistan and car [Central Asian Republics] and providing land route from Iran to India and access to the Central Asian Republics to the Arabian Sea and India for oil/gas pipelines.”
A beginning has been made by reaching an understanding on a five-point roadmap. However, if the past is anything to go by, even the best-laid plans could go awry with a misstep and who would know it better than Sharif for it was during his previous tenures as prime minister that Kargil (1999) and Mumbai serial blasts (1993) took place. Given that the Modi-Sharif talks at Ufa were hosted by Russia, perhaps the Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai” (trust but verify) should best capture New Delhi’s thinking as it tries to get its head around the Pakistan conundrum.
For Modi, who is seeking to go beyond Vajpayee insofar as foreign policy is concerned, perhaps a Mann Ki Baat or a Vajpayee-like “musings” from Kumarakom in 2000-01 to speak directly to the peoples of India and Pakistan would not be a bad idea going forward.