Consider the effusive way Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was greeted by our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi: we didn’t get even the slightest impression that here was a difficult neighbour that Modi was dealing with. Sharif was expansive, saying he came on a mission of peace. It is another matter that ahead of the Prime Minister’s trip to India, as well as during the trip, Pakistani soldiers were firing on Indian positions even as our soldiers were responding in kind. That was the sound of the clashing of ignorant armies. It is a background noise that has come to define the relationship. Now after one 40-minute meeting between the principals, there is hope that things could change between the countries.
It is a logical hope. Prime Minister Modi seized the initiative to have the neighbours participate in his assumption to office. It signalled that the neighbourhood was very much a part of his agenda, indeed a large part of it. Gone was the recriminatory attitude. Instead we got to hear how Sharif’s mother was impressed with the way Modi included his mother in his victory laps. We got to hear how Modi presented a shawl for Sharif’s mother. Of course, we were told that Modi brought up the cross-border terrorism thing, and the Mumbai blast thing, and the other usual things. Of course Sharif told the Pakistani media that he had also pressed the usual buttons that Pakistani Prime Ministers press when they meet Indian Prime Ministers. So what was different?
The difference is this: Manmohan Singh had brought a deep sense of ennui to the relationship with Pakistan; his willingness to take the relationship forward was never on display. Modi doesn’t have to report to 10 Janpath. Pakistan provides the biggest chance for Modi to make a clean break with the past. Will he seize the moment? Consider, we have a Prime Minister in Pakistan who has proven he is a participant in the peace process. Modi’s predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Lahore to make peace with Pakistan. It is another matter Musharraf was ingressing into Kargil even as his Prime Minister was exuding warmth to Vajpayee. Musharraf pulled the rug from under Sharif’s feet and sent him into exile. Vajpayee was badly bitten, but yet he extended an invitation to Musharraf to visit Agra. He was ready to make peace. The summit collapsed and Musharraf alleged it was under the weight of the contradictions within the BJP, indicating Advani had been responsible. In December that year, our Parliament was attacked. Yet three years later, Vajpayee and Musharraf were doing business again in Islamabad, where Musharraf promised not to use the territories under the control of Pakistan as a springboard for terrorism. He declared a unilateral ceasefire along the LoC, and then he had to leave Pakistan.
Now that Sharif is back, what could he have told Modi except, “Look, even though we don’t have magic wands, why don’t we pick up the threads of peace again?” Could Modi have told him, “No, not yet, I am not ready for it, I’ll have to check with the folks in Nagpur”?
Sudarshan is most recently the author of Adrift