In an amazing departure from the established pattern of India-Pakistan relationship, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not only decided, notwithstanding the rising border tensions between the two countries lately, to stay the course and go through with the meeting between the two countries at the level of the National Security Advisors as agreed previously but also to take the initiative to propose the dates of the meeting on August 23-24.

Narendra Modi’s priority is a tension-free external environment to advance the development agenda

Only a couple of days back, India’s interior minister Home Minister Rajnath Singh had made a provocative statement that India will give Pakistan a “befitting reply” for the recent terrorist strike in the western state of Punjab. Clearly, Modi is giving the pass to his core political constituency of Hindu nationalists. Which is just as well, because these rabble-rousers, so full of hubris and bravado – and so full of themselves – do not reflect at all the nation’s aspirations of peace, harmony and development.

Without doubt, the decision underscores Modi’s national priority, which of course he has openly stated on many previous occasions – namely, that a tension-free external environment is a sine qua non for advancing the development agenda.

Two other signposts also need to be noted in this context. To be sure, Modi’s capacity to rein in the hardliners within the Indian establishment remains unmatched. Two, the opposition parties, Congress Party in particular, have put the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to shame by refusing to play to the gallery to demand that due to the increased tensions in relations with Pakistan, the NSA-level talks should be called off.

Of course, it is far from clear whether the recrudescence of the “national consensus” will prove enduring, since India’s domestic politics remains highly tendentious. Indeed, the BJP itself had been in a destructive mood while in the opposition and did all it could to demolish whatever national consensus remained on foreign-policy issues.

The crux of the matter is that the ultra-nationalist lobby in India poses the biggest hurdle to the normalization of India’s relations with China and Pakistan. If only these elements can be reined in, India’s foreign policies and diplomacy vis-à-vis China and Pakistan can operate in a creative setting. Pakistan has outgunned India in the most recent years in its regional policies.

The challenge facing the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval when he sits across his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz cannot be underestimated. What the two countries urgently need is a mutually agreed moratorium on the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Of course, no breakthrough can be achieved in the upcoming two-day talks. There is so much accumulated debris by way of death and destruction, injured pride and the huge distrust.

Importantly, there should be an understanding to carry forward the dialogue. If Doval succeeds in laying the foundation for an uninterruptible dialogue, he can hope to build on it, leading all the way to Modi’s historic visit to Pakistan next year.

The India-Pakistan talks come at a defining moment in regional security. The dissipation of the “Mullah Omar myth” augurs well for peace in Afghanistan and for regional security.

Hopefully, by the time the two NSAs meet, the resumption of talks between the Afghan government and the new Taliban leadership would be on the cards.

The United States has called for early resumption of the intra-Afghan talks. Pakistan also sounds hopeful. The possibility remains that the next round may lead to a ceasefire in the fighting in Afghanistan. Most certainly, it is crucial that India stands on “the right side of history”.

Simply put, Doval needs to ensure that. In fact, it could be a major confidence-building measure in the present-day context that he can hope to bring to the negotiating table three weeks from now.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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