Narasimha Rao has a lesson for Modi as shadow of terror hangs over talks with Pakistan

As shadow of terror hangs over talks with Pakistan, Narasimha Rao has a lesson for Modi
Photo Credit: Ministry of external affairs
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The terror strike at the Pathankot air base on Saturday once again brings to the fore the question of whether New Delhi should push for closer ties with Islamabad even though it is clear that this strategy lacks national consensus.

From available indications, it seems that the terrorists crossed over into India two or three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore on December 25. A link between the two events seems inconceivable.

Yet the narrative has come to focus on the very efficacy of India-Pakistan dialogue. There is a sense of triumphalism among many of those who oppose dialogue with Pakistan. They believe that their so-called hardline thinking – “no dialogue while terrorism continues” – stands vindicated.

On the other hand, the advocates of dialogue have gone on the defensive. This polarisation of opinion in favor of the hardliners may not be a true reflection of the mainstream opinion. But in the absence of a national consensus, it is yet to be rejected.

An echo of the past

The government faces the same dilemma that gripped the dialogue process during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime: the voices of reason and moderation are allowing themselves to be overwhelmed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be well served if he were to take a leaf out of Narasimha Rao’s practice of statecraft in the early nineties to push the initiative on Pakistan.

The year was 1993, circa June. The Babri Masjid had been destroyed six months before. As the anger in the Muslim world was still overflowing, Rao took a controversial decision to pay a path-breaking visit to Iran. It was entirely Rao’s decision; the South Block bureaucracy was merely informed about it.

The opening to Iran resulted from an acutely felt need to acquire more space in India’s diplomatic manoeuverings, in particular with regard to the Kashmir problem. This was because for the first time in the post-Cold War world, after several decades of seamless Soviet support, Delhi was being called upon to handle the issue on its own on the international stage.

Given the US’s unfriendly attitude toward India in the full flush of the victory over socialism, it made additional sense to cultivate Iran, a powerful voice in the Islamic world and a country that is rooted in safeguarding its strategic autonomy.

A well-considered strategy

The opening to Tehran was borne out of strong compulsions, not of whimsical choice. Nonetheless, Rao was apprehensive about how his minority government would defend itself against adverse domestic public opinion. At the time, India was a hopelessly polarised polity. Besides, Iran had been a strident critic of the tumultuous happenings in India in late 1992 and early 1993.

Rao directed that someone from Ministry of External Affairs should go over to meet the Bharatiya Janata Party’s’s Great Helmsman at that time, LK Advani, to explain the raison d’être of the Iran opening, and try to carry the saffron party along.

On the instructions of JN Dixit, the foreign secretary at the time, I undertook the mission. I began with trepidation when Advani received me at his Pandara Road apartment.

Through the 40-minute briefing, I explained the various dimensions of our initiative on Iran – against the backdrop of the uproar in the Muslim world over Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency, the headwinds in the United Nations on account of India’s human rights record, the disarray in the Russian policies under President Boris Yeltsin and the vengeful attitude of Washington towards non-aligned India, and so on.

At the end of the briefing, which Advani listened to attentively, he asked a few searching questions, reflected for a while, and then went on to say something like the following: “You people are doing something that is very much in the national interests and we will never stand in the way. I will apprise Atalji. Indeed, our party will discharge its role as a responsible Opposition in the parliament and we will continue to express our misgivings about government policies, but you should go ahead with this initiative. I wish all success for the PM’s visit to Iran.”

Changed situation

How times have changed. Today, there is no such working relationship at the level of the leaderships of the Bharatiya Janta Party and the Congress Party. Modi as prime minister did not apparently feel the need to explain to the Congress leadership his profound considerations in making repeated overtures to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif as he did in Ufa, Paris and Lahore over the past six months; the Congress and the BJP are actually locked in a curious role reversal with the latter having having virtually usurped the Congress’ Pakistan policy but still lacking the imagination to explain its motivations through the prism of national interest.

From indications available so far, the government appears to be sticking to its action plan with regard to dispatching the foreign secretary for talks in Islamabad on January 15, the terror attack on Pathankot base notwithstanding. That, of course, will indeed be the right thing to do. But the big question remains: In the absence of a political consensus at home, how far can Modi possibly advance his Pakistan policies?

Put differently, what is the big deal about dialogue if the talks get reduced to a mere charade that needs to be somehow gone through lest the international community view India as intransigent?

To be sure, a crisis of confidence is likely to arise after the Pathankot attack. The will to advance the dialogue process and to take bold initiatives to normalise relations on the part of the government – even to pluck the low-hanging fruit – may have taken a blow.

Clearly, the government’s priority at the moment will be to ensure that Modi’s personal prestige is not affected. Looking ahead, therefore, it remains to be seen how long the dialogue can be sequestered – as it ought to be – from such lateral hits from across the border.

The only way the dialogue process can be insulated and be made uninterruptible will be by making it the finest foreign-policy flower of a national consensus. Here, the onus is entirely on the government to reach out to the Opposition.

An opportune moment

But, as things stand, one gets the sinking feeling that the BJP is not interested in getting down from the high horse, nor is the Congress in a mood to be helpful. But, fundamentally speaking, our eclectic political culture is such that if Modi were to switch tack and reach out, as Rao did in 1993, the Congress leadership will not be found wanting.

The heart of the matter is that New Delhi has been presented with an opportunity to seek an enduring normalisation with Pakistan, making India’s relations with that country tension-free, predictable and mutually beneficial. Pakistan has changed significantly in recent years and its priorities and concerns have altered. The entire region stands to gain from India-Pakistan dialogue.

Paradoxically, Pakistan for the first time seems to have a national consensus on ties with India – although our old mindset regarding the power calculus in that country prevents us from sensing it.

On the other hand, the borderline that separates India’s two main national parties is now covered in moss, and lies beneath layers of fallen and decaying leaves. Rao’s initiative in another time of great turbulence and acute polarisation in Indian politics remain hidden.

But the good thing is that there are incipient signs that the country’s leadership at the highest level seems finally to be realising that unless the problematic relations with Pakistan are set right and unless we shift from the crisis-management mode to an earnest attempt at resolving our differences with our neighbouring country, India’s overall performance as an emerging power will remain sub-optimal.

The good thing is, equally, that today there is no third party that strives to exploit India-Pakistan tensions with a view to advance its regional strategies. This includes, most importantly, both the US and China.

Thus, all said, the major hurdle in the path of the dialogue is entirely of our making, and only we can remove it. If he trains his mind, Modi will be able to hear Rao’s footsteps.