NSA talks: Will Modi's new approach on Pak of engaging Nawaz Sharif & responding to Gen. Sharif's provocations be fruitful? - Pranab Dhal Samanta, Economic Times
Indo-Pak talks are on, the day's drama over the house arrest and release of Hurriyat leaders notwithstanding. And India goes into the August 23-24 National Security Advisor (NSA) level talks with a clear strategy - two approaches for the two Sharifs.
Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif is eager to maintain dialogue, senior Indian officials said. They said the Indian PM's strategy is to keep engaging with the civilian government while being tough when provocations come from the Pakistani army - led by General Raheel Sharif. The idea is to not let General Sharif derail talks sought by Prime Minister Sharif.
"We want an opening in Pakistan...something we can work on while we don't let their army get away with anything," a senior official familiar with the PM's thinking said. Officials who spoke to ET for this story did so on the condition they not be identified.
TEA WITH BARACK
Officials said Prime Minister Modi had discussed elements of this strategy with major Western leaders. During his January visit this year, US President Barack Obama hadn't raised Pakistan during formal talks. But talking a walk on Hyderabad House lawns before sitting down for tea with his host, Obama told Modi he wanted to understand the latter's approach on Pakistan and hoped to have a chat on that "over there (at the tea-table)". Modi, officials said, responded briefly as they walked. He told Obama that the US must understand that the larger problem was Pakistan itself. Modi recounted he had wanted to reach out to Pakistan after the Peshawar tragedy, but suddenly there was talk of Pakistan releasing Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.
During tea with Obama, the Indian PM elaborated his strategy that he explained later to other Western leaders as well, France's Francois Hollande and Germany's Angela Merkel.
During his visit to France and while talking to President Hollande, Modi recalled his chat with 'Barack'. The PM told the French leader that what he had suggested to Obama is may be the time had come for all major democracies to adopt one, single approach towards a meddling Pakistan Army and in doing so, show solidarity with the democratically elected government in Islamabad.
Modi shared with Hollande a 'radical' suggestion he had made to Obama - Western leaders and senior officials visiting Pakistan do away with customary meetings with Pakistan Army officials. This, Modi told his French host, would convey a strong message that the democratic world was united in its preference towards the civilian government. The PM articulated similar views to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
BE SMART, NOT HARD
Senior officials said Modi started deeply rethinking his Pakistan policy at the beginning of this year. The PM came to conclusion that allowing cross-border firing or terror group activities to affect engagement doesn't help India. A hardline attitude from India allows Pakistan to complain that the Indian PM was interested only in belligerent responses on ground, not dialogue.
The basic framework of the Modi strategy of two lines with two Sharifs was finalized by April. By the time New Delhi dialed Islamabad to set up the meeting between Modi and his Pakistani counterpart in Ufa, Russia, the policy construct was clearer. As a top official involved in the exercise, put it: "Two separate tracks for Sharif and Sharif." The most important aim of the two lines for two Sharifs strategy, officials said, was to engage with Pakistan in a way that strengthens Pakistani democracy. And to the show the world India is serious about dialogue.
This doesn't contradict India's longstanding policy of upping diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to deal with terrorists. The recent joint declaration between India and the UAE that spoke of India's concerns about terrorism is an example of this, officials said.
UNVEILED AT UFA
India deployed the two-lines-two-Sharifs strategy in Ufa, the Russian city that hosted the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meetings in early July. India was a participant at both meetings while Pakistan was present for SCO deliberations.
New Delhi had spoken to Islamabad before the Ufa meetings. Nawaz Sharif, Indian officials said, demonstrated a strong desire to resume dialogue.
The usual exchanges had taken place, with Pakistanis expressing fears that border tensions were affecting Kashmir peace and Indians reiterating their demand on Lakhvi. The joint statement, however, made a clear mention of dialogue.
When the joint statement was ready, Sharif had suggested that as per convention the two foreign secretaries could brief the respective media. But Modi, Indian officials said, came up with another idea - that the foreign secretaries should read out the statement, half and half, and take no questions, The aim was to ensure that there were no gaps in interpretation and that the two leaders appeared on the same page in their wish to resume dialogue.
Officials said the idea of a dialogue with Pakistan's civilian, democratic power centre was a Modi idea that wasn't deliberated in any great detail with senior ministers. The cabinet committee on security hadn't discussed this ahead of the Ufa meet. None of India's top minister knew about diplomatic strategy at Ufa.
On his return, Modi assured some of his senior colleagues that Pakistan has made a commitment on Lakhvi. Modi's key officials passed around broad details of Ufa talks later among cabinet heavyweights.
STAY THE COURSE
Officials said Modi continues to stand by the Ufa commitment despite repeated provocations from Pakistan. It was significant, officials pointed out, that when the first round of cross-border firing happened after the Ufa meet, India waited 24 hours before responding. But response will always happen to military/terror provocations.
"The big shift between the previous government's approach and this one's is that this government will retaliate, it won't tolerate provocation beyond a point," a senior official said. Instructions have gone to the Border Security Force that each time Pakistani army starts shelling, BSF must retaliate with greater force and seek to inflict greater damage.
But simultaneously, Modi has shown willingness to be flexible when it comes to issues like Hurriyat. From a position of not allowing any interactions between Pakistan and Hurriyat the government has moved to allowing 'social engagements' as long as Hurriyat doesn't appear to be a third party in bilateral talks. Modi, offcials said, has calibrated his government's line on this to ensure that the Hurriyat irritant doesn't turn into a conversation breaker in the future.
GOOD SHARIF DELIVERS?
But what can India expect from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif if General Raheel Sharif continues to create trouble? India's first expectation is that PM Sharif delivers on the 26/11 case. India wants the Pakistani PM to ensure some credible movement on the case, leading to a conviction. This, Indian officials say, can 'unlock' many more conversations, conversations Nawaz Sharif himself is keen to have.
Second, with India showing a a clear intent that it wants to keep dealing with the civilian government, New Delhi hopes Nawaz Sharif will be able to leverage this with the Pakistani Army and rebuild confidence along the border and the Line of Control. A range of confidence building measures, including nuclear CBMs, can materialize if Islamabad shows intent, added sources.
MANAGING THE MESSAGE
Officials said Modi's new Pakistan policy depends crucially on managing how the message gets out. What to say and how to say and whether Indian and Pakistani interlocutors are on the same page - these are key elements that need careful preparations.
Modi managed the message in Ufa himself, officials said and the two leaders appeared on the same page. But even then, Nawaz Sharif was critiqued in Pakistan because the joint statement did not refer to Kashmir. Senior Indian diplomats said India would have had no problem if Pakistan had wanted to add the stock line: "discuss all outstanding issues including Kashmir". Indian officials gave credit to Nawaz Sharif for being more interested in starting dialogue than getting caught up in such pettifogging details.
But Pakistani officials, Indian officials say, also realized from the Ufa/Kashmir controversy in Pakistan that how any dialogue process plays out in public perception is crucial. That's why, officials pointed out, the NSA level talks are starting with both sides saying they have their demands and dossiers. Whatever goes on behind the scenes, perception has to be managed.
The NSA-level talks this weekend will be a test case for Narendra Modi's new Pakistan policy. General Sharif has "done everything to call off the talks," officials said, pointing to Wednesday's and Thursday's Hurriyat drama as the latest example.
"More provocations may come over the next few days," a senior official said, "this will test the strength of conviction of the new policy".
"The PM doesn't like like to be seen to be appearing conceding space but at the same time is firm on the two Sharifs/two lines policy". August 23-24 will be a big marker in Narendra Modi's foreign policy.
I am very pessimistic on the ability to drive a wedge between the Pakistani political class and the Pakistani Army. The frustration that some Pakistani political parties express with the Army now and then is not a true barometer of these parties rejecting Army's intervention in governance altogether. If Zardari spews venom against the Army, there is always an Imran Khan waiting in the wings to support the Army. Apart from the tradition of the Army's clout from day one of its Independence, the Pakistani politicians are also unsure of themselves when it comes to dealing with India and are therefore quite willing to concede space to the Army. Political parties also realize that masses do not like anything being said against the Army. In the worst case of there being no trustworthy or pliant political party, the Army can always stage a coup and the masses would welcome it at least initially because their anger would be so much against the inept politicians. The western powers (like the Pakistani judiciary) would approve of it as a "phase of Constitutional deviation dictated by necessity".
Secondly, no western leader is going to listen to the sane advice of discarding meetings with the GHQ, for they know that the real power is with them. Their needs and necessities are different from ours. Surprsingly, even on those occasions in the last decade when their armed forces doing duty in Afghanistan lost men due to the blatant perfidy of the Pakistani Army & ISI, they rather suffered the ignominy (except on one occasion) than indulging in retribution.