On Pak policy, the PM leaves a good template

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Missed opportunity Despite his best efforts, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to negotiate a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan ties
Missed opportunity Despite his best efforts, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to negotiate a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan ties, Photo: AFP

With the General Election underway, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has been on an extensive tour of the country. Moving from one town to the next with a spring in his heel, the Gujarat chief minister has been giving speeches to swelling crowds across a country that seems to have already hailed him as the next leader.

India’s territorial disputes have always been politically charged, and for good reasons. The two prickliest points for any politician in New Delhi, when it comes to foreign policy, have been those of China and Pakistan. In the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region claimed by China as its own, Modi said: “I swear in the name of the soil that I will protect this country.”

While Modi himself has been cautious of using the issue of Pakistan in his speeches (other than calling Defence Minister AK Antony a “Pakistani agent”), his fellow party members have done that work for him. The party’s candidate from South Delhi, Ramesh Bhiduri, said that “Modi Pak aur US dono ko thokega (Modi will teach Pakistan and the US a lesson)”.

In the mind of the average Indian voter, Pakistan is still perceived as the single biggest threat to India. According to a research conducted by Sydney-based think-tank Lowy Institute, 94 percent of the people surveyed considered Pakistan as a threat, compared to 83 percent for China.

According to strategists who are advising Modi on issues of security and foreign policy, if the BJP was to come to power, its foreign policy will be dictated by the idea of an economy so strong that the country would be able to deal with other States, neighbouring and far alike, on its own terms. The BJP’s manifesto as well leaves considerable amount of room for Modi to formulate a Pakistan policy later if he takes over 7 Race Course Road.

However, his Pakistan policy is one area where, even with his public contempt towards the current UPA government led by the Congress, Modi may find himself on a similar page with outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Over the past few years, specifically since 26/11, Manmohan has had the hard task of applying the traditional carrot-and- stick policy with Islamabad. It is no secret that this has not gone down well from New Delhi’s part, as Pakistan has made next to no headway in the Mumbai attacks case. However, Manmohan’s constant push to try and move the India- Pakistan dynamic to the next logical step has been pragmatic.

Over his near-decade rule, Manmohan has managed to pencil in a flexible policy for the more than often troubling neighbour. The prime minister had started the challenge of developing a viable and working economic structure with Pakistan. This approach, which looked to reach out more aggressively to Pakistan’s “peace constituencies”, was based around greater economic cooperation with Islamabad to break the traditional shackles of mistrust and scepticism.

The idea of engaging with Pakistan in such a manner was not the most popular one both within Manmohan’s government and in public opinion, specifically as a follow-on act just a few years after the Mumbai attacks. However, the prime minister persisted, and he seemed to have some basic reciprocity from his Pakistani counterparts as well, where a civilian government had for the first time completed a full tenure.

Pakistan has been sitting on the decision to give India the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status since 2011, a move that New Delhi already committed to back in 1996. Agreeing on the MFN status is by no means a bilateral agreement that garners such attention. However, with India and Pakistan, even a small bilateral movement such as this one has to become a spectacle in itself.

As of April, Islamabad is still balking on the MFN commitment, which even forced Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to cancel a trip across the border — meant to operationalise some trade agreements — due to internal power struggles. This showcases the main challenge that Modi may inherit from Manmohan, the blurry lines of power between Pakistan’s civil government and its powerful military complex.

This blurry line of central power in Pakistan is the one that Manmohan looked to gain clarity over, and after doing so, move forward with offers of economic cooperation that may be difficult for Islamabad to refuse. During this period, one could argue that even the all-powerful Pakistani Army saw the silver linings in expanding relations with India.

One of the areas chosen by India to initiate this strategy was the energy sector. Pakistan has been going through a crushing shortage of energy. During his election campaign, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had promised to solve the power crisis. Electricity shortage was reaching critical levels, and Sharif could see that the people were pensive, which could have led to protests on the streets. He used this opportunity to promise energy security to the people of Pakistan, and this was seen as one of the major reasons behind his victory.

Meanwhile, New Delhi offered to export of Liquefied Natural Gas to Islamabad via a pipeline running from Jalandhar in Punjab to Lahore, via the Wagah border. The efforts of the prime minister’s office also included to get companies such as GAIL to agree to invest a significant amount of funds in infrastructure and handle supplies specifically for Pakistan. The fact that India would be importing this gas itself from Qatar and then sending it to Pakistan showed the lengths New Delhi was going to get such a deal done.

Perhaps, this is why, this project itself has faced so many issues. The strong-arm presence of factions within the Pakistani Army, the ISI and the powerful Maulana lobby had reportedly been able to stall the progress of the deal.

This has also highlighted the difficult task of recognising who exactly are the “peace constituencies” of Pakistan, and to what extent are they going to be approachable for New Delhi.

The success of this energy deal, which Manmohan had reportedly envisaged as one of the crucial points in making historic breakthroughs with Pakistan, now sits idle and awaits the next prime minister to decide its fate.

This is one of the examples where Modi, if he comes to power, may get the chance to fill in the outlines of Manmohan’s idea to use economic goodwill and partnership to forge a much more sustainable and all-round path with Islamabad.

Even as Modi has targeted the Manmohan government’s record for corruption and poor economic policy decisions, the latter’s almost uncharacteristic bravery in pushing for better ties with Pakistan before his tenure finishes has actually left his successor with a significantly good policy sketch.

Some experts are already suggesting that once in power, Modi may look to visit Pakistan within a year or two of becoming the prime minister. If India- Pakistan relations manage to continue in a positive trajectory under the next government, even though a traditionally more stern Pakistan policy is expected from the BJP, Manmohan may be the person to whom at least a significant amount of credit would find its way towards.

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