Going by the Indian tradition of stalling and subverting numerous peace processes with Pakistan on flimsy pretexts, Narendra Modi has failed his leadership test by cancelling a foreign secretary level meeting with Pakistan. The peace process is again thwarted, at least for the time being. However no one is really surprised, India was working this since Modi’s assumed power.

The proximate cause of cancelling the talks is India’s anger over the preparatory meetings that Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India held with the political leadership of Indian Held Jammu and Kashmir (IHJ&K). Yet, Pakistan has been holding talks with Kashmiri leaders on all such occasions for the last 20 years. Previous Indian prime ministers from both sides of the aisle, including BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajayee, had happily lived with the practice.

India has thus bluntly made Pakistan choose between an Indo-Pak dialogue or interactions with the Kashmiri leaders. They created hype with the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution and asking UN Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to vacate the building.

However, the more plausible reason for India’s kneejerk reaction is its mounting agitation over the forthcoming elections in Kashmir, in October and November. These elections have previously been marred with low turnout, dubious funding and other manipulations.

Modi made some hard-hitting statements against Pakistan during his visit to Kashmir and was greeted in Kashmir by a complete shutter down and wheel jam strike. To ward-off the embarrassment, he gave carefully constructed incendiary statements while addressing Indian troops. In his toughest statement on Pakistan to date, Modi said that Pakistan “has lost the strength to fight a conventional war but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism.” He chose a politically charged venue for his outburst—Kargil. Once the process was set in motion, his defence minister toured the line of control (LoC) and since then there has been a surge in ceasefire violations from Indian side. Rhetorical utterances by the new Indian Army chief also added fuel to the fire. Then, during his independence day extempore Modi once again oozed out harsh words for Pakistan.

Calling off a fledgling peace process on the basis of imagined provocations has exposed India’s unwillingness. Having ridden a wave of Hindu nationalism and anti-Pakistan rhetoric to office, Modi is more inclined to play to the domestic gallery than promote dialogue. Bizarrely, odd comparisons are being made in India, that the meeting between Pakistan’s High Commissioner and IHJ&K leadership in India is akin to Indian diplomats engaging Baloch separatists in Pakistan.

Needless to state the obvious, that while Kashmir has been an internationally accepted disputed area Balochistan is part of Pakistan through wilful expression of intent by the legitimate representatives of the Baloch people. Kashmir has had three wars fought over it. In a major aggressive military manoeuvre “Operation Meghdoot” in Kashmir, India moved its troops and occupied Saichen glacier in 1984. India gained more than 1,000 square miles of territory because of this military operation. The Kashmir dispute is on the UN agenda since 1948. There are over a dozen UN resolutions on the subject; and UNMOGIP is permanently stationed in the two countries to monitor the UN mandated and Simla Agreement endorsed Ceasefire Line/Line of Control in Kashmir. There have been 57 border violations by the Indian troops since July last year.

After India called off the talks, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit responded that calling off the August 25 talks was a setback. Addressing a press conference at Foreign Correspondents’ club in New Delhi, Basit defended his meetings with pro-plebiscite Kashmiri leaders and said that he did not breach any protocol. “This has been a long-standing practice...It is important to engage with all the stakeholders to find a peaceful solution to the issue...So the setback should not disappoint us, discourage us to finding ways and means as to how to take the process forward in line with our leadership’s visions on both sides of the border,” he stated. The aim of the High Commissioner’s meetings with the Kashmiri leaders was to find a viable solution to the issue. Indian diplomats in Islamabad also meet people from all quarters.

Modi had raised expectations that he would work harder at resolving differences when he invited Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration in May. Nawaz Sharif obliged, despite an earlier refusal by Dr Manmohan Singh to attend Nawaz Sharif’s inauguration. The photo of the two men shaking hands came to symbolize the promise of future peace.

Internationally, Modi has been faulted for cancelling the meeting. “There are no two countries in the world that need to talk, and talk regularly, more than these nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours whose tensions must be carefully managed,” said a report in the New York Times. The NYT said, “Cancelling the meeting was an over-reaction on India’s part, especially when it could have served as an opportunity to discuss grievances and press for a solution...There will always be political excuses not to take risks.”

Foreign policy should not become hostage to Indian domestic concerns alone. Without simultaneous commitment at the very highest levels of political power, Pakistan-India relations will never truly be able to move forward. Oddly, now Nawaz Sharif faces criticism about the utility of his misplaced fondness for India.

Modi, who won a huge victory in the May election, is in the strongest political position, while Nawaz Sharif would also emerge equally stronger, once the ongoing political soap-opera in Islamabad sit-ins fizzles out in a week or so. Hopefully, Narendra Modi will outgrow his anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan hang-ups. The choice is with Modi, whether he wants to leave behind a legacy of a prudent statesman or go down in history as a mere RSS zealot. The suspension of dialogue will not cause any material setback to Pakistan; it can wait for the end of Modi’s reign.

However, rationality and continuity should underwrite the bilateral relationship. What’s needed is a meeting between the two leaders to establish a continuing dialogue. Next month’s UNGA meeting in New York offers a good venue. The announcement of a fresh schedule of secretary level talks could help create forward movement during the prospective summit on the sidelines of the UNGA session.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

kiqbal1234@yahoo.com

@kiqbal1234