Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handshake with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif soon after taking oath at the Rashtrapati Bhawan courtyard in that early summer of 2014 was the defining picture as the new dispensation in New Delhi took charge. Breaking from the past, Modi had invited Sharif, apart from leaders of other neighbouring countries, for his swearing-in ceremony. It was a massive diplomatic outreach by the new PM in the context of the hostile and acrimonious ties the two neighbours share. The meeting raised hopes of a new start in India’s policy towards Pakistan. It was also a complete change in approach between Modi, the PM candidate and Modi, the Prime Minister. The 56-inch bravado during the Lok Sabha election campaign was a thing of the past.
Despite the UPA government’s hyperventilating stand of an ‘uninterruptible’ dialogue with Pakistan, the then PM Manmohan Singh could not make a single visit to Islamabad. So when Modi invited Sharif, many believed it was the departure of jingoism attached with dialogue between the two countries. But two years is too long a time.
Now that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is visiting Islamabad for the SAARC meeting, he doesn’t seem to have the same advantage, conducive environment or euphoria created after that famous handshake. Under the Modi government, the first chance of a high-level engagement between the two countries came in August 2014 when the Foreign Secretaries of both the nations were slated to meet. But taking a maximalist position, India cancelled the talks over then Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders ahead of the crucial talks. The shrillness in talks was back. Pakistan argued that there was nothing new when the Hurriyat leaders met Basit. But India was adamant – talk to us, or the separatists.
After months of chill in ties, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad in December 2015 was seen as a result of a back-channel hard work and secret meetings. Also, a chance meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the climate summit in Paris was seen as a precursor to Swaraj’s Islamabad visit. Swaraj, who attended the Heart of Asia Summit in Islamabad, conveyed to Pakistan that both the countries should display “maturity” in doing business with each other.
Sushma Swaraj’s visit was followed by a surprise stopover by Modi in Lahore. This was one foreign policy moment that Modi, perhaps, will be remembered for years to come. It was hailed as a transformative move in India and Pakistan relationship. Modi’s meeting with Sharif and his family members during the marriage ceremony in Lahore was a ‘picture-perfect’ frame which dominated the headlines for days.
However, the bonhomie didn’t last long as Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed soon carried out attacks at the Pathankot Air Base. The National Security Guards later revealed that terrorists were carrying AK-47 assault rifles, a grenade launcher, a dagger, cough tablets and some perfume. And they were there for a long haul. Whatever was gained in the last one year seemed to have been lost.
And the recent spate in violence in Kashmir after the killing of Hizbul militant Burhan Wani has once again raised the pitch on both sides of the border. Pakistan even went on to declare a black day. Home Minister Rajnath Singh reminded Pakistan not to interfere in India’s internal affairs.
In this backdrop, the Home Minister’s visit to Pakistan will perhaps define the future course. Asking for resumption of a composite dialogue may be far fetched now, but Rajnath’s visit can, at least, open a window of opportunity for future engagements.