The ammunition that an Italian court’s verdict in the Agusta scam provided to the Modi government strengthened it in two different battles. First, of course, it placed the Congress directly in the line of attack. But less noticed was how it provided fortuitous covering fire for the government’s near-under-the-radar shift in its Pakistan policy. The media has been so distracted decoding the ABC of the acronym-littered money trail in the helicopter scandal that a written Parliament reply by Union minister General VK Singh almost slipped through the cracks.
Ironically the former army chief who had tweeted about ‘disgust’ and the obligations of ‘duty’ when he was chosen to be the government’s representative at a Pakistan high commission reception — also attended by Kashmiri separatists —was now informing his colleagues that the secessionist Hurriyat conglomerate was made up of “Indian citizens” who were thus free to meet representatives of any country. Yes, the caveat that there was no room for them at a dialogue table between India and Pakistan was reinforced. But there was no missing the fact that what was once touted as a ‘red line’ that only a tough leader like Narendra Modi could draw had been effectively erased.
Some of us would call this belated wisdom, or the victory of pragmatism over polemics. The decision to cancel talks twice with Pakistan — once the foreign secretary dialogue and another time the scheduled meeting of the two national security advisers because of the Pakistani insistence on meeting the Hurriyat — did not eventually end up weakening the separatists. In fact, it had the very opposite impact. It refocused media attention on the pro-azaadi groups and revived their relevance in the Kashmir discourse by making them a national debating point. Further it was an unsustainable position and sooner or later New Delhi was going to discover that it had locked itself into a corner by taking a stand it wasn’t going to be able to stick to.
The BJP couldn’t even point to the weak romanticism of Manmohan Singh to explain how this was a departure from business as usual. It was the previous NDA government under AB Vajpayee that had shown much more flexibility and initiative in engaging the Kashmiri separatists than any Congress leader ever had.
When LK Advani — the proclaimed ‘Iron Man’ of the party — was deputy prime minister he met with the Hurriyat at his North Block office. (In today’s times, he’d be called anti-national.) So it was peculiar to see the Modi government make the separatists such a key factor in whether dialogue with Pakistan would take place or not. When Sartaj Aziz was due to visit Delhi, three Hurriyat Conference members were even kept under house arrest briefly, presumably to stop them from arriving in Delhi to meet the Pakistani delegation. From the point of view of the BJP’s more hawkish supporters, all of this was meant to infuse a dose of muscular nationalism into a foreign policy they thought had been steered by wimps. Except — as the quiet admission in Parliament now shows — there was no great benefit to India from this position. In expending this much energy on the separatists, Kashmir was unwittingly centre-staged as the most intractable issue between the two countries, instead of terrorism — just what India did not want.
Smart diplomacy is all about adapting to shifting circumstances and contexts and so I would not condemn the government at all for this U-Turn. In fact if it helps in defter navigation of a road that is almost always littered with minefields, I would say: ‘Why Not? Let’s welcome it.’
But then I possibly don’t represent the sentiments of the BJP’s Twitter troopers — its more hardline base which has very different expectations of the Modi government. And it is here that Modi’s Pakistan policy is symptomatic of its existential confusion.
The PM must decide whether his policy will reflect the tough-guy machismo of the leader with the 56-inch chest or the deft and soft agility of a statesman keen to build a foreign policy legacy. What got him elected may have been the former; what he needs to do in government is the latter.
There have been several signs that he was quite ready to leave behind the ‘jumlas’ of his high-voltage electoral campaign and recast himself in a different mould. The unannounced visit to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif and the mature handling of the Pathankot terror attack aftermath are indicative of a more reflective, less chest-thumping approach to Pakistan. But every now and then, perhaps guided by the need to balance the political books, the paradoxes erupt; the Hurriyat impasse was one such. The challenge for the Modi government is now to carry along those of its supporters who are fulminating over this quiet parliamentary admission.
In any case, in the first-ever official confirmation of a poorly kept secret the former R&AW chief AS Dulat’s memoir says that successive governments in Delhi have engaged Kashmir separatists and even militants not just politically, but also financially. Unruffled by the storm that followed his revelation he told me: “So what’s wrong? It’s done the world over,” sharing details of how the Indian government had quite often paid for air fares and medical treatment of even hardened pro-Pakistan separatists. “Corrupting someone with money is more ethical and smarter than killing him,” the top spook said wryly.
That these words came from someone who knows should take care of the populist ‘outrage’ factor that obstructs so many government policies these days. The parliamentary statement is also a prompt; stop paying so much attention to the external dialogue with Pakistan; it’s an internal peace process within the Kashmir Valley that needs your attention.