Santa arrived this year bearing something that has swept the entire world off its feet. The entire Western and American media are raving about it let alone the media of the two countries. Yes, they are indeed talking about Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan on Christmas day.
Strategists have rightly named Modi the modern-day Chanakya, and he proves this right time and again. This visit has created a conducive atmosphere for both India and Pakistan to move towards resolution on substantial issues that have troubled not only the two countries but also the entire region.
Barring the Congress, which questioned the suddenness of Modi's move, the Indian Prime Minister’s two-hour halt in Lahore on his way home from Kabul has been widely welcomed. It is reported that Modi broke the ice by telephoning Sharif from Kabul to extend birthday greetings to him. Although Indian officials said that Sharif had asked him to break his Kabul-Delhi journey in Lahore, Pakistani officials say Modi sought an invite, and Sharif gave him one and was a gracious host.
Modi then flew into Lahore, hugged Sharif and the two leaders took a helicopter to Sharif's ancestral residence at Raiwind where they sipped Kashmiri tea and discussed confidence-building issues. But let us not forget the backdrop of these talks, which is certainly menacing enough. The two countries have fought four major wars since Independence and have a fast-paced piling-up of scores of nuclear weapons always pointed at each other. Of course, India’s stronger economy means that even though Pakistan may not win an arms race, any wise man will see that this race really has no winners. This was, however, the first visit of an Indian premier to Pakistan in 12 years and has thus raised hopes for peace across the region.
But let us not be too quick and get carried away by the hugs and handshakes that are ruling the media.
If history is any guide, similar emotions were created when former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Lahore on the Dosti Bus in 1999, Pakistan’s General Musharraf visited Agra in 2001 or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Delhi in 2014 to attend the swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the initial excitement proved effervescent and soon enough it was status quo with both countries back to their tough stands.
The tensions along the line of control have been high and the two countries have pointed fingers at one another.
It may also be pertinent to note that during their respective visits to Washington earlier this year, both Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif expressed their concern about India’s aggressive posturing and Pakistan’s inability to devote full attention to Afghanistan’s stability in the face of this threat. So this dialogue could have been initiated by Washington. But that was not the only stimulus, Modi’s image was being tarnished by the growing incidence of intolerance in India attributed to the rise of Hindu nationalism made worse by his silence on the matter. So a change of stance was the call of the hour. This was good diplomacy.
But the question still remains: what will come off the dialogues? The two countries have conflicting expectations of each other and different priorities. Pakistan has long argued that the Kashmir dispute should be resolved first, or at least in conjunction with other areas of mutual concern. India has been and will remain unwilling to offer to Pakistan any concessions on Kashmir.
But all said and done there are some things different this time. China, for example, has a massive investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to China’s Xinjiang province. Does that make China a stakeholder in India-Pakistan peace? The corridor is being considered a part of the larger Chinese plans to stabilise the region on its periphery and to this end is expected to open avenues of regional trade. Clearly China realises that it can only reach its potential if there is peace in the region. On the other hand, there is the US that for its own reasons continues to nudge Pakistan and India towards peace. Then there are the businessmen friends of the two Prime Ministers who are eying the economic prospects in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
In the ultimate analysis, much would depend on whether the two leaders will be able to show not only bold, imaginative and sustainable leadership but also policies that change destinies of their peoples. Anything less will be a repetition of the same old story.
But as they say, “a thousand mile journey starts but with a single step”. This was a good first step in the right direction.