Earlier on 16 March, I quietly went to see an indefatigable Kashmiri leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, at his modest Delhi flat. He was unwell. I also thought to personally invite him to the Pakistan Day reception to be held on 2 April. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. Here was a man who was totally committed to Pakistan and the cause of Kashmir. This was my first meeting with him as High Commissioner. I had met him once earlier at the high commission when he came to see Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir in February 2010.
Though there was nothing new about our meetings with the Kashmiri leaders, there is always some hoopla around them in India. As was the practice, I invited all of them to our Pakistan Day reception and they all came, including Syed Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik. I also had detailed meetings with them at the high commission.
They were divided in their views about Modi’s Kashmir policy should the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Some opined the BJP would be better than Congress and that one could expect Modi to be another Atal Bihari Vajpayee who might revive his three-pronged policy of humanity (Insaniyat), democracy (Jamhooriyat) and Kashmiriness (Kashmiriyat) in settling the Kashmir dispute.
Syed Geelani, however, strongly differed. He was also shirty with President Pervez Musharraf for he thought he went out of his way to pander to India. He termed his four-point formula a huge setback causing immeasurable damage to the Kashmir struggle. Similarly, he would contend that the 6 January 2004 India-Pakistan Joint Statement issued in Islamabad was an unpardonable faux pas that did nothing but only blighted the freedom movement as “cross- border terrorism’’.
He had no doubt that the ultimate objective of New Delhi was to convert Jammu & Kashmir also into a Hindu-majority state and, in view of Pakistan’s own political and economic mess, India would literally have a walkover. Syed Geelani would always insist that Pakistan was far more important than Kashmir. The latter would be able to free itself from Indian shackles only if Pakistan was stable and strong.
However, Mirwaiz and Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat would view the situation differently. They thought the BJP, since it was a Hindu nationalist party, was better positioned to resolve the Kashmir dispute. They, however, recognised that, for such parties, moving away from their ideological moorings was never an easy proposition. Nevertheless, if Modi was handled cogently and his pathological hubris was somehow managed gently, there could be some movement forward.
I could see that, as in the case of Syed Geelani, they, too, were worried that the BJP under Modi, who was definitely not a Vajpayee and far more into pursuing the RSS agenda, could become a huge problem not only for the Kashmiris but also Indian Muslims.
As for Musharraf, they would give him the benefit of the doubt. In their opinion, Musharraf’s four-point formula should have been taken as the starting point for negotiations and not the end game. However, the Congress party and the Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were not the right interlocutors for resolving such a complex and religiously divisive issue. But then who knew in 2004 that the BJP under Modi would ever be able to win so convincingly in the May 2014 general elections.
The BJP election manifesto was clear on Kashmir which talked about revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution and stripping the state of its special status that was granted to it by the so-called instrument of accession signed by Maharajah Hari Singh. Like Syed Geelani and other Kashmiri leaders, I couldn’t help but worry about the BJP’s future plans under Modi. But Islamabad seemed to be in total denial and mostly insouciant. Unfortunately, I ended up fighting on many fronts.
One other important issue that occupied me during my initial days in New Delhi was the grant of NDMA to India. Our Commerce Minister, Khurram Dastagir Khan, had visited New Delhi in January and it was decided that Pakistan would extend the NDMA (read as MFN status) to India soon. For this purpose, his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma, was very keen to visit Pakistan at the earliest, that is, prior to general elections that were being held in several phases in April/May 2014.
While the dates for his visit to Pakistan were being worked out, I was approached by a person (Non-Resident Indian living in the US, I cannot disclose his name in deference to his desire) who claimed to be a close friend of both Mohan Bhagwat, Chief of RSS, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. He was visiting Pakistan (as recommended by our Ambassador in Washington DC) on 3-6 April. He was in New Delhi and wanted to see me before leaving for Pakistan.
I invited him for lunch on 1 April. He conveyed a goodwill message from the BJP leadership and thought he could play a positive role in bringing the two countries together. Coming to the main point, he contended that granting NDMA to the outgoing Congress government would be wasteful. Islamabad should defer the matter. Since the BJP would most likely form the next government, it would make eminent sense to oblige the incoming set-up. This would help make a good beginning.
He said he knew Modi very well. Once he was convinced that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meant well, Modi would go out of his way to reciprocate and reach out to Pakistan. “Modi never forgets a favour,” he claimed.
Without committing anything, I proposed that we meet again after he had returned from Pakistan. He was very happy with his discussions in Islamabad, especially in the MoFA where he was received by Fatemi. However, he wasn’t sure if we were willing to acquiesce to his proposal of deferring the NDMA.
I told him that the NDMA was not a very big deal. Should the BJP win, there would be many other opportunities to work together for peace and development in South Asia as envisioned by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. As for the NDMA, I also kept the door ajar as I was inclined to his viewpoint. However, I wanted to be absolutely sure that BJP’s victory was a foregone conclusion. After much homework, I finally wrote to Islamabad that postponing the NDMA would be wise as the Congress party was in deep water and in no position to win for a third consecutive time.
Islamabad agreed with my recommendation. However, Commerce Minister Sharma was unhappy. At a social event in New Delhi, he conveyed his disappointment to me at Pakistan’s kind of backing off from its commitment and being driven by Indian domestic politics. He found it strange that Pakistan had totally forgotten what happened to Babri Mosque in 1992 and how thousands of Muslims were massacred in Gujarat in 2002 under Modi’s watch. He was of the clear view that Pakistan’s approach was short-sighted and would likely boomerang.
Sharma did make the right noises in private. But the fact of the matter was that, in Pakistan, too, there were strong lobbies averse to the idea of NDMA. I myself was apprehensive. Despite the fact that India had granted us the MFN status back in 1996, the balance of trade continued to be growing in favour of India. Our exports to India went through discriminatory non-tariff barriers including stringent visa procedures for Pakistani businessmen and unduly long sanitary and phytosanitary tests leaving our exporters with endless agonies and, in the end, making our exports non-competitive.
In my subsequent recommendations to Islamabad, I would support extending the NDMA to India but with the caveat that Pakistan should also apply all those non-tariff barriers on Indian imports that India unilaterally invoked in our case. My argument was that we must take a leaf out of the Indian playbook rather than cribbing about non-tariff barriers.
Diplomacy is not about only adopting and articulating hard positions when it comes to an adversary but also playing hardball and return in kind. Later developments, however, overshadowed the initial bonhomie that was generated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s two-day visit to New Delhi (26-27 May) to attend Modi’s inauguration.
Excerpted with permission from Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan India Relations, Abdul Basit, HarperCollins India.