A Pakistani business leader pens his thoughts on Modi's stopover in Lahore
Bus diplomacy. Cricket diplomacy. Handshake diplomacy. Now, Birthday diplomacy. India and Pakistan excel in unpredictability and abnormality. Sometimes, they are so hostile that their leadership refuses a handshake, whereas sometimes they go for the bear hug. India and Pakistan leaders have strange ways to project to the world that when they so desire, they meet and create the desired hype to display sparkling lights of optimism. Although the hoopla created by these initiatives does not last long, but for whatever it is worth, it surely generates the excitement and hope that are blatantly missing factors in the bilateral relations of the two neighbors.
December 25 is a day of solemn reflection of the ideals and teachings of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Founder of Pakistan. His birth anniversary falls on Christmas Day, when most of the citizens felicitate their Christian fellow citizens. It just happens to be the birthday of Pakistani Prime Minister, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. For his political party members, this is a three-event celebration day.
The TV channels were keeping the viewers occupied with programs on Jinnah and Christmas. Panelists on TV talk shows were motivating the viewers through the deeds and words of the Quaid. Then came the breaking news. More of a bombshell. Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, was about to make a pit stop in Lahore on way home from Kabul. Why? To convey his best wishes and felicitation to Sharif on his birthday as well as on the nuptials of his granddaughter. Personal diplomacy at its best. Why? Is the ice melting? Climate Change meeting in Paris, National Security Advisors meeting in Bangkok, Heart of Asia meeting in Islamabad, and now Modi visiting Lahore/Raiwind for a birthday/wedding bash? All of a sudden, it is Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah in Indo-Pak bilateral scenario. It cannot be better than that.
Hold on, say the critics. Not so fast. Modi while leaving Afghanistan aboard IFC-52 of the Indian Air Force with IFC-54 as the second security decoy, made a rough and tough blame of cross border terrorism on Pakistan even while Sharif was on his way to the airport to receive Modi with all smiles. Where were both NSA? Where was the media? What was the agenda? Kashmir, Siachen, MFN, Afghanistan, Terrorism, border conflict, cricket series, etc? Were all these ignored and only pleasantries exchanged while partaking cashew, almond, and pistachio nuts and tea? Sharif was the perfect host by keeping contentious issues away from the festivities of the day. In true traditional manner, he welcomed a neighbor, albeit a foe, he accorded all protocol, the neighbor being a Prime Minister, he accepted the felicitation and good wishes, as it should be done. So why the carping and ranting and raving by critics on both sides of the Line of Control?
Two categories of people had their day spoiled with black clouds on them. The fundamentalists belonging to the politico-religious parties and the retired uniformed personnel. The less said about the fundamentalists who just cannot fathom peace in the region. The retired officers of the Armed Forces in India and Pakistan, having nothing to do, no golf to play, living comfortably on pension and investments, spend their evenings on TV talk shows. They become expert analysts and commentators and they usually see a red handkerchief in all issues and initiatives taken to normalize bilateral relations and usher in peace in the region. They went all over like a raging bull. They knew that this small step by Modi might turn out to be a giant leap for the denizens of the sub-continent.
The Indian opposition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Indian involvement in Balochistan, the incessant blame game played by Delhi accusing Pakistan of terrorist activities, the Non-Tariff Trade Barriers that India uses to hamper Pakistani goods to have a level playing field, and not allowing Pakistan and Indian cricket teams to play, are some of the genuine complaints of those who are vehemently and vociferously against any progress in the tense bilateral relations.
Leave aside the conspiracy theories. Forget who initiated the Birthday Diplomacy. Ignore presence of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at Heart of Asia in Islamabad. Disregard belligerent outbursts of so-called analysts. Think positive. This was no selling out by anyone nor was it a Composite Dialogue. It was a much desired goodwill gesture by both the leaders. For crying out loud, even an estranged paternal aunt shows up at weddings.
Industrialists and traders were in a bullish mood. Sajjan Jindal, the Indian steel tycoon, became the role model overnight. What Godrej or Ambani in India or Mian Mansha and S M Muneer in Pakistan did not have the critical mass to play a game changing role, Jindal did it, (or so they say). The naysayers alleged that the "steel" connection enabled the tycoon to be the go-between. So what? Jindal did it (or so they say). Barkha Dutt revealed that Jindal got both leaders in his hotel room during the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in 2014 for 60 minutes of tête-à-tête (so she says). While FPCCI, FICCI, or SAARC CCI just talked and issued position papers and resolutions, Jindal did it (or so they say).
Trade and industry leaders are sanguine that the trade normalization process would pick up momentum, the visa regime would again move towards liberalization, and maybe, just maybe, banks would be allowed to set up branches across the border. Munabao-Khokhrapar route may be allowed to function. Special Economic Zones at the border is also a distinct possibility. The consensus among businessmen is that although India should not be allowed transit passage to Afghanistan, many are open to the idea of India using Gwadar Port and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to access Afghanistan.
What next? For one, the Foreign Secretaries are meeting to resume dialogue on January 15. This is what is so imperative. Dialogue must not stop at all cost. No excuses, no hard posture, no back-pedaling. The future of the sub-continent and the region is stake. Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in his Tweet summed it up fabulously. He said "Many winners from Modi in Lahore. One of them, quite frankly, is the civilian leadership, and democracy overall, in Pakistan."
Naturally, every event attracts jokes, cartoons, and humorous tit-bits. The latest joke doing the rounds is worth mentioning. MNS: "What do you say, shall we talk about Kashmir? NM: "Why not" MNS: "Waiter, bring two cups of Kashmiri Chai, pronto."