India’s Pakistan policy has zig-zagged wildly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He first wooed his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, descending on his home in Lahore on Christmas Day in 2015, to wish him on his birthday. But Modi lacked the stamina and the gumption to take on the Pakistani deep state, which responded with the Pathankot attack barely a week later, in January 2016.
After nearly two years of hurling fire and brimstone at Pakistan, and visiting world capitals to demand that Islamabad be proscribed for its support to terrorism, Modi seems to suddenly believe that Islamabad’s offer of permitting a corridor from Gurdaspur in India to Kartarpur in Pakistan offers the prospect of acting as a bridge to the neighbouring country.
Kartarpur, in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, is the place where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life till his death in 1539. The gurdwara built here is one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism. The Pakistan government has approved the development of a corridor from Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur to the international border. On November 22, the Modi Cabinet approved the development of a corridor on the Indian side –from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to the international border. This strip will allow pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib without a visa throughout the year. On November 24, Modi likened the proposed corridor to the breaching of the Berlin Wall that led to the end of the Cold War. On Monday, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu laid the foundation stone for the project at Mann village in Gurdaspur district.
All this happened after three months of unrelenting attacks by the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, on Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu for announcing that Pakistan had decided to allow Sikh pilgrims direct access to the Kartarpur gurdwara. Sidhu had been informed of this by the Pakistan government during his visit to Islamabad to participate in the swearing-in of Imran Khan as prime minister in August. It was on this visit that Sidhu had hugged Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, for which he was attacked by the BJP.
On his return to India, Sidhu had written to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj urging her to take up the Kartarpur Corridor issue at an official level. However, he was reprimanded by Swaraj for his pains. The Shiromani Akali Dal had questioned his patriotism and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal had accused him of furthering his own agenda. Sidhu was generous enough to ignore this sniping after the Union government later did exactly what he had proposed – take up the Pakistani offer.
Why did the Modi government change tack? Usually matters relating to Pakistan are a convenient way of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment in the Hindu heartland, a staple BJP electoral tactic.
The reason is that anti-Pakistani sentiments no longer resonate in Punjab. Muslims on the Indian side and Sikhs on the Pakistani part of Punjab were, so to speak, “cleansed” during Partition. Today, the horrific events have receded from memory, and been replaced somewhat by nostalgia for the days of united Punjab. This was evident from the fact that Sidhu did not face criticism within Punjab itself. Indeed, given the Pakistani offer, it appeared that New Delhi was scoring a self-goal among the Sikh community by not taking it up immdiately.
Hence the quick about-turn. Even so, New Delhi ensured that the Kartarpur corridor will not be the basis of normalisation of ties, especially since its groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan was scheduled for November 28, the week India was commemorating the 10th anniversary of the horrific terror attack in Mumbai. Sushma Swaraj politely declined the invitation to attend, noting however, that India would be represented by Union Ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri.
But this is not the only about-turn this month. Earlier on November 9, India participated in the second Moscow format meeting on Afghanistan where Taliban representatives were present. It did so by using the artifice of sending two retired foreign service officers who work with government-funded think tanks in New Delhi. So far, India has maintained that it did not recognise the right of Afghan insurgent groups to participate in any peace talks because of their jihadist background. The real concern, however, has been New Delhi’s belief that the Taliban are a mere proxy for Pakistan.
A third straw in New Delhi’s confusing wind has been the visit of former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik to Jammu and Kashmir, where he met Hurriyat leaders. Bondevik is currently the head of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, and given Norway’s penchant for peace-making, there is speculation that some peace moves are afoot. The fact that New Delhi permitted the visit is significant. That Bondevik clearly sees his role as a peacemaker is evident from his remarks in Srinagar and his subsequent visit to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan.
This too is an about-turn. For six years, no foreign dignitary has met Hurriyat leaders, and New Delhi has sought to isolate the Hurriyat since 2014. At the same time, it has refused to talk to Pakistan, especially on the issue of Kashmir where it has adopted a policy of militarily finishing off the militancy.
This recent development suggests that the Union government may be realising that it is in a no-win situation with regard to Jammu and Kashmir currently, and needs a way to break the ice with both Pakistan and the players in the state.
What is not clear even now is whether these shifts in New Delhi are because Modi wants to minimise the possibility that some of these issues will act as a drag on his re-election campaign, or if they represent a change of heart in New Delhi.
Certainly, the 2019 General Elections were an important consideration when India made peace with the Chinese in Wuhan earlier this year. The BJP knows that bashing Pakistan plays well in its electoral base, but it is one thing to inflate a minor cross-border strike into a military victory, as was done with the so-called surgical strikes across the Line of Control in 2016, and quite another to get involved in a skirmish that may not work so well for India and expose the Modi government’s weaknesses. Likewise, turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir, which was in a state of relative peace in the years before the Modi government, could play badly with the electorate.
The fact is that the Modi government has made a mess of India’s Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir policy, and now it is seeking to ensure that things do not blow up in its face.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi