Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to be congratulated for his brave move in announcing he will visit Pakistan.
I do not only mean brave from the point of view of physical courage. I have been to Pakistan many times and not felt unsafe, and it is clear that Modi will find that he is given security of the highest standard. But even so, Pakistan’s most protected man, former president Pervez Musharraf had his convoy bombed twice and its former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed not that long ago. So Modi is brave in agreeing to go where even cricket teams have refused.
The second way in which he has been brave is that he has defied many in our media and also our strategic affairs experts in reaching out to Pakistan decisively. More importantly, he is defying those Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters who insist that Pakistan only be dealt with firmly or not at all.
Modi has, for a long time, been celebrated for thumbing his nose at Nawaz Sharif. India, for the last one year, has said it will be able to bend Pakistan to its terms. This was the reason that India sulked with Pakistan over non-issues like the Hurriyat meeting the Pakistani high commissioner. On other matters, like the almost incessant shelling across the Line of Control, it has become clear that the BJP could not sustain its posture that India had enough firepower to overwhelm Pakistan decisively. We did not. Given this reality, it was bound to happen that India would have to change its attitude towards Pakistan. Modi has done so, as I said, decisively. Visiting Pakistan by a man from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who has viewed that nation as an eternal enemy is an exceptional gesture.
My old boss M J Akbar, who is these days in the BJP as its national spokesman, put a brave face on this U-turn by Modi. He said that “for the first time Pakistan has accepted to combat terrorism in ‘all its forms’”. This is, of course, a lie. Pakistan has used this exact formulation — rejecting terrorism in ‘all its forms’ — since 9/11. In fact, the ‘all its forms’ phrase was specifically used by Pakistan to include what it says is Indian state terrorism in Kashmir! So for the BJP to now call it a triumph is a bit rich.
The fact is that Modi went to Central Asia this week and would have learnt that any business he wanted to do for their natural resources, including gas, would happen only through Pakistan. India cannot expect Central Asia to dislocate itself and jump over Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we want good and robust relations with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, we can only do that after we have good and robust relations with Pakistan.
There is no running away from geography as that other BJP leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, often said in his wisdom. I agree totally.
Anyway, I should at this point toot my own horn. I had written this in November last year after yet another instance when Modi had changed his position on Pakistan:
“Modi broke off talks with Pakistan without thinking his steps through, in my opinion. He said tough things about Pakistan but this week he was embarrassedly forced to shake hands with an enemy, Nawaz Sharif, despite his decision on breaking off talks. But why was he forced? Because this was inevitable, as some had predicted, since Modi’s policy was neither here nor there. It was merely posturing. Acting tough and inflexible when this was not affordable and was impractical. What benefit has this sulking brought us Indians?
“Nobody in the BJP and none of its ‘hard’ supporters in the media can explain this. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley claimed he taught Pakistan a lesson through killing more of its civilians in border shelling than they killed ours. Assuming this was a lesson, and many Indians will disagree with this, can he guarantee that the shelling has ended forever? If he cannot, what was the point in not talking to Pakistan instead of working towards cooling things when they become heated?
“The hard school of thinking has nothing substantial to offer and this has become clear over the last 20 years. The facts show this. India is not strong enough to muscle its way over Pakistan because the BJP has made the subcontinent a nuclear battleground. India refuses to have international mediation on Kashmir, and, at least at the moment, India will not talk to Pakistan. This situation will change and it is going to have to be India and the hard group that will have to bend.”
The BJP has bent. Make no mistake, and ignore the brave but empty words of M J Akbar. Pakistan has not changed a single thing. It is the BJP and its unhinged supporters who have changed. And this is a very good thing.
The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House