Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently sent Home Minister Rajnath Singh to a South Asian regional meeting in Pakistan to show that India is willing to engage a difficult neighbor and, in doing so, to bring about a calming effect on the acute ground situation in the Kashmir Valley still seething over the killing of a charismatic young militant leader by security forces. But Pakistan made a shrewd assessment of what India was up to and did not want to lose ground by engaging with New Delhi at this point. Rajnath’s Islamabad trip thus became a futile exercise which may fuel the mass upheaval and even bring down the Jammu and Kashmir government of which Modi’s party is a coalition partner.
The standoff in Islamabad Thursday between the visiting Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Nisar Ali Khan hosting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting of interior ministers has no parallel.
They took diametrically opposite stance on the phenomenon of terrorism affecting regional security in South Asia. Rhetorical flourishes followed at the SAARC meeting. No surprises here.
But then, the two ministers went on to carry their mutual antagonism (radiating from their vitriolic mutual barbs over Kashmir issue) to an intensely personal level. The lack of minimal civil behavior was unique even by the yardstick of India-Pakistan diplomacy.
However, what remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma is why Rajnath Singh traveled to Islamabad at all when his presence at the SAARC event was not an absolute ‘must’.
To deconstruct the enigma, the beginning has to be made probably in a remote village known as Kokernag in the southern Anantnag district in the restive Kashmir Valley where on July 9 Indian security forces ambushed and killed a 21-year old charismatic militant leader by name Burhan Muzaffar Wani in circumstances that remain unclear.
For sure, there was a tip-off regarding Wani’s hideout, which led to the Indian security operation, but the enigma continues as to the ‘walk-in’ who passed on the intelligence.
Wani’s death turned out to be hugely consequential. A mass upheaval erupted over his killing. Nearly 50 people have been killed in the ensuing violence, and hundreds injured, and most of the Valley remains under curfew.
It is a ‘win-win’ situation for Pakistan. An iconic nationalist Kashmiri leader has been eliminated – and, with no blood on the hands of Pakistani agencies.
Pakistani agencies may see an opportunity to rekindle the embers of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir that has been on the wane lately.
Equally, Pakistan can mount a diplomatic campaign drawing attention to the imperative need of international intervention to resolve the Kashmir problem.
Nonetheless, the real mystery inside the enigma – why Rajnath Singh, who holds charge of Jammu and Kashmir in the federal government, chose to travel to Pakistan at all at this juncture – needs some explanation.
Without doubt, it was a deliberate political decision, which could have been taken only at the level of Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
Putting pieces together in the jig-saw puzzle, a stunning sequence may explain the backdrop to Modi’s decision.
Principally, Modi’s decision was a gambit, bypassing established diplomatic channels, which led New Delhi to assess that an Indian overture reviving political contacts (‘dialogue’), which Pakistan has been keenly seeking, would be timely and advantageous. Pakistan would take note that Rajnath Singh is de facto number two in the Indian cabinet and a political heavyweight.
Modi’s smart decision can be deconstructed in three ways. Firstly, Rajnath Singh’s ‘bilaterals’ in Islamabad would only project India as a responsible regional power willing to engage a difficult neighbor. The Pakistani campaign to vilify India’s image internationally would, therefore, lack conviction.
Secondly, emanating from the above, an engagement with Pakistan will in any case be only symbolic, without involving commitments, and the option is always open to slam the door shut on downstream ‘dialogue’ if it becomes politically necessary. In sum, no harm would be done if Rajnath Singh parleyed with Pakistani leaders.
Ideally, any synergy created during Rajnath Singh’s visit could also help prepare the ground for Modi’s own historic visit to Pakistan for the SAARC summit in Islamabad (expected around November).
Modi choreographs his foreign-policy enterprises unfailingly with an eye on embellishing his standing in domestic politics. (The state of Uttar Pradesh with a big Muslim population of 40 million is heading for crucial provincial elections early next year.)
Thirdly, most importantly, the optics of India-Pakistan engagement could have a calming effect on the acute ground situation in the Valley. The ruling BJP is part of the coalition government in Srinagar and unless the upheaval subsides, the continuance of the set-up in power is in doubt.
Suffice it to say, Modi’s decision to despatch Rajnath Singh to Pakistan was fell-founded from different angles. But then, the best-laid plans can go awry vis-à-vis Pakistan, where there are multiple power centres.
Pakistan too made a shrewd assessment that at the present juncture, it actually stood to ‘lose’ by being seen as holding Rajnath Singh’s hands. Pakistan is disillusioned with Modi’s maverick record so far, suddenly springing into pro-activism and then inexplicably lapsing into extended periods of hibernation.
To cut a story sort, Islamabad has become evasive for a variety of reasons about ‘engaging’ with India at this point, but when this realization finally dawned on New Delhi, circa last weekend – that Pakistan would refuse to play ball – it was already too late, since Rajnath Singh’s mission to Islamabad was in the public domain by then for a week or more already, and calling it off would have been extremely damaging for Modi personally.
Simply put, India had no option but to go along with Rajnath Singh’s visit, knowing fully well that it would be a barren exercise. The damage control accent, thereupon, shifted to tough rhetoric with the Indian spokesman insisting that Rajnath Singh was not in the least interested in seeking ‘bilaterals’ in Islamabad, and that by visiting the lion’s den, his real intention was only to read the riot act to the host country in front of the regional audience that the SAARC event provided.
Quite obviously, it was a catastrophic misjudgement on the part of the Indian leadership to have handled the Pakistan policy in such a clumsy fashion. Sheer naivety regarding the uses of international diplomacy; gross misreading of Pakistani mind; lackadaisical approach to defusing the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir; propensity to use foreign policies to gain advantage in domestic politics – all these came into play here.
What lies ahead? Conceivably, it will take time for the Indian leadership to get over the bad taste in the mouth. Modi may mothball his desire to travel to Pakistan for the SAARC summit.
Of course, resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue is unlikely for the foreseeable future. India and Pakistan are bent upon highlighting the political and security crisis in Jammu and Kashmir on world forums.
Alas, the dismal outcome of Rajnath Singh’s visit to Pakistan may fuel the mass upheaval in Jammu and Kashmir. Amidst the gathering storms, the prospect of the tottering elected government in Srinagar collapsing at some point cannot be ruled out.
And if that happens, a political challenge arises even more formidable than in the late eighties when the bloody insurgency in the Valley began.
Most certainly, the killing of Wani becomes a defining moment, playing into the hands of the Pakistani agencies who will now proceed to take advantage of the upheaval to breathe new life into the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley.
To borrow the chilling line from the Book of Revelation, the situation is ripe for them to thrust the sickle into the earth and gather the vine of the earth, and “cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God”.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.