Even before all the new MPs had been sworn in, the spokesman of the external affairs ministry informed us that the “foreign policy inbox of the PM is full”. This was more than what his boss, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh, revealed in the course of an extraordinary press conference when SAARC leaders were visiting, notable only for excruciating lack of significant information to give to the press—why have a press conference when you don’t have anything to say?
Consider, however, the situation: Even before Modi formally became PM, his Pakistani counterpart had been invited to attend the swearing-in and not only that, Nawaz Sharif had the gumption to accept the invitation. Could this have happened overnight, just like that?
We know now that the our new PM is going to be dashing off to Bhutan, Japan, attend the BRICS summit where he will meet the leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, and have a bilateral meeting with President Obama in September, which is barely three months away. Pakistan, however, is conspicuously absent from the list of destinations. There has been some press reports that Mian Nawaz Sharif had felt slighted during his trip and thereafter a different spin was established. So there is some signaling going on.
Mian Nawaz has invited Modi to Pakistan, and it has been accepted. Modi should break with the pattern of coy meetings with Pakistani PMs ‘on the sidelines’ of this summit or that. He should go to Pakistan, preferably between Diwali and the New Year. You may ask why. The best intentions of a new government are best expressed in the first six months in office. Once the intention is expressed, then you follow through to demonstrate you mean business. Sujatha Singh’s sour press conference notwithstanding, it was clear to one and all that Modi means business with the neighbours, that includes Pakistan. And Modi should prove it in deed as well. It will give Mian Nawaz the confidence he requires to move forward with India.
Further, he should eschew going to Islamabad the capital. Let him explore new options, Karachi or Lahore, Mian Nawaz’s home town. It is not as if Modi’s election has Sharif nonplussed. For two months now, Pakistan’s politicians have been watching the steady political accretion of Modi. They have been anticipating this. Sharif must have been quite prepared. Just as Modi had the gumption to invite Sharif, with nary a criticism, we must credit Sharif for accepting it, despite the usual Pakistani travel advisories against it.
Yes, we know Sharif is not famous for completing his tenures, but that may be changing after Zardari. What could be the deliverables? Modi will no doubt want to put his own stamp to his Pakistan policy, and there have been enough conversations between New Delhi and Islamabad, both online and offline, so each knows where the other stands. There is a window of four or five months, enough time to work out a clean package that includes the MFN that Modi can come back home triumphantly with and for Sharif to disprove his detractors. The first six months is the best time to build trust and demonstrate what the Pakistanis call niyat, intent. If Modi doesn’t show this intent in the first six months, then the usual suspects will swarm the process as usual.
Sudarshan is the author of Anatomy of an Abduction: How the Indian Hostages in Iraq Were Freed