LAST week Imran Khan praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his clean public life. The former Pakistan Prime Minister has singled out India’s foreign policy under Modi with approbation more than a couple of times since he lost power almost six months ago. Khan has lamented that while Pakistan mortgages its independence in foreign policy to world powers, India forcefully exercises its sovereign choices against the same nations with no adverse fallout.
While Modi’s foreign policy successes have got some attention already, including by way of books, there has been some panning of how he has tackled Pakistan. Criticism by the political opposition and old-school commentariat has focused on lack of consistency, general drift, absence of predictability, and missing objectives. Is that the right appraisal?
I recently got my hands on a book by Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India in the 2014-17 period. He arrived just ahead of coming to power of the Modi-led BJP government in May 2014 and stayed in New Delhi till the end of 2017 before taking premature retirement and settling in his hometown of Peshawar. The book – Hostility, A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan India Relations – is a sort of scrapbook of his days in New Delhi as Pakistan envoy, plus a professional chronicle of Pakistan’s India relations till its publication late last year. It covers the governments of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan in Islamabad, while the Modi government has been in power in India.
Basit was the most hostile and provocative Pakistani envoy to New Delhi in recent memory. He himself admits in his book that he was seen in Delhi as throwing the monkey wrench whenever there would be some positive developments on the Indo-Pak front. Just to give you an idea of how hawkish he was, he met separatist Hurriyat leadership led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Pakistan House within the first week of coming to India in March 2014. Basit never met Farooq Abdullah or any other pro-India democratic leaders during his stay here. He raised the Kashmir issue within the first month of having landed in Delhi at a press conference and continued his stance on Kashmir despite being upbraided by his own foreign office! In effect, there is nothing that could show him as being soft or sold on to the Modi establishment.
With this background, Hostility can be treated as giving a comprehensive, if not the most definitive, picture of Modi’s Pakistan policy. While the period has seen ups and downs typical of India-Pakistan relations, a clear pattern emerges, which is, that at no point has the Modi government lost control over either the direction or narrative and has kept the Pakistani establishment foxed and second guessing. This is significant given Pakistani deep state’s leverage with terrorism in Kashmir, and their capacity to alter facts on the ground through the home-based terror machine. The agenda-setting has been firmly in Indian hands.
Let's begin with the beginning. Basit mentions that Modi’s Pakistan outreach began months before he took over as Prime Minister in Delhi! A private individual, an NRI from the RSS ecosystem, made a dash to Islamabad and met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif even as polling was underway for the last few phases. A hint of a sense of destiny vis a vis Pakistan? Maybe. At least it shows even Modi the PM candidate was actively thinking about foreign policy and Pakistan.
The SAARC invite to the swearing-in, the overall bonhomie generated during the occasion, and the hitting of personal rapport between Modi and Sharif culminating with the birthday dash to Lahore to participate in Sharif’s granddaughter's marriage are well chronicled. What is not is what went into it, beyond the Sajjan Jindal link. Basit's book gives a peek into how authoritative, the Modi establishment was from the word go. Old hands like former RAW chief AS Dulat were pressed into service to impress upon the Pakistanis that raising Kashmir or meeting the separatists might derail a peace process even before it began. It was also conveyed that the dividends could be disproportionate with Modi once trust was built. In the end, the first meeting between the two PMs saw Modi mentioning terror and the Mumbai attack investigation, while Sharif kept mum on Kashmir. Taken together, it shows that Modi wrested the initiative, and got the Pakistanis driven to the cues early.
And then the tough love. Even as the afterglow of swearing-in vibes was setting the stage for some durable gains with the impending visit of then Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh to Islamabad in August of that year, Basit threw the spanner by inviting Hurriyat leaders to his office just two days before Singh was to fly out. He mentions how he got an earful from a matronly Singh in a phone call, and the visit was cancelled. A new red line was drawn which has persisted since with a rock-like consistency. Interestingly, according to Basit, the old establishment men like Dulat and Ambassador KC Singh were surprised at the strong position the Indian side took. Old hands of Kashmir beat like journalists Vinod Sharma and Prem Shankar Jha even suggested that Basit could have been allowed to meet the Hurriyat leadership. The Hindu in an edit piece upbraided the Modi government for cancelling the visit. “Cancelling the talks shows a shockingly inadequate grasp of history,” said the Hindu. Clearly, Lutyens's Delhi itself failed to read the tea leaves on the paradigm shift that had taken place. It was no business as usual with Modi at the helm.
On taking over as Foreign Secretary in January 2015, Dr S Jaishankar, in his first meeting with Basit, made it clear to him that Islamabad had miscalculated on India’s evolved position on Hurriyat, and that from here on, the separatists were not to be indulged with for any progress in the bilateral dialogue to take place. Such was the terror created that when Jaishankar’s first visit to Pakistan was announced, Basit was called to Islamabad and parked there for a week before the dates, so that he couldn’t repeat the Hurriyat mischief again! In his first meeting with National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, Basit was told in no uncertain terms that Hurriyat had lost its relevance and that Pakistan would have to revisit its Kashmir policy, rethink and encourage Kashmiris under its influence to come to terms with the changed reality. In his two hours long meeting, Doval seems to have underscored more than a couple of times that the resistance movement was fizzling out. This must have been a classic Doval psyche-out plan. For, from then till Pakistan’s miserable and failed attempts to get the attention of the world community on Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370, Basit chronicles, the half comic half tragic saga of the ineptness of the Pakistani foreign policy establishment.
Imran Khan's government was caught in a blue funk (which means fear and panic), writes Basit, when the Modi government abrogated Article 370 and scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on August 5, 2019. A Kashmir cell was hurriedly established in the ministry of foreign affairs, and in a telling commentary on Pakistan’s standing within the Muslim nations, it failed to get a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) on Kashmir. Pakistan also failed to get a special session of the UNHRC in Geneva. It needed 16 votes for the session to be called, and yet, none of the 47 members of the body, including eight Muslim nations obliged!
At the UN Security Council in New York, Pakistan had to satisfy itself with an informal consultation under the agenda item “any other business” and not Kashmir, and that too courtesy of China. The French did not respond to Pakistani calls till after the meeting was over, and no statement was made out. If this was not enough humiliation, at the UN General Assembly session that year, except for Turkey, Malaysia, and Iran, no other Muslim nation mentioned Kashmir or protested India’s position! A perplexed Basit concludes that Pakistan should stop projecting Kashmir as an Islamic issue altogether. The import of this conclusion is for our Kashmiri brothers to understand.
Many Pakistan watchers in Delhi believe that the fits and starts of the Modi government on Pakistan show a lack of direction or objectives. But a closer look through the Basit scrapbook shows a tough troika of Modi-Jaishankar-Doval in control through the difficult ups and downs from Ufa to Uri, and from Pathankot to Pulwama.
While Jaishankar and Doval were playing hardball and setting the agenda on talks, Modi kept calling Sharif. First to wish him on the Pakistani cricket team’s campaign in Australia, and then on the first day of Ramadan, where both agreed to meet on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Ufa, Russia, which was slated for a fortnight later in July. This was 2015. Ufa joint statement was widely seen as a setback in Pakistan, for it failed to mention Kashmir. So much so that a miffed Hurriyat cancelled their participation in Basit’s Iftar party ten days later in New Delhi. This even as Indian concerns on terrorism, particularly slow progress in the Mumbai attack investigation, were noted.
There was someone keeping an eye on optics as well. At Ufa, Modi stood at one end of the big hall and Nawaz Sharif walked all the way to greet him, suggesting Pakistan needed the talks, India obliged. Similarly, at an Iftar hosted by the Foreign Secretary for envoys of Muslim nations, Basit was made to sit next to then EAM Sushma Swaraj so that he could be given an earful, even as the picture went out of India being accommodative.
It is unfortunate that someone in Pakistan pushed the envelope. It is not a mere coincidence that within a fortnight of the Ufa talks happened the Gurdaspur terror attack. At the end of the year, when Modi made that famous unplanned stopover in Lahore on Sharif birthday and his granddaughter’s wedding just to add that personal touch, the Pathankot terror attack happened a week later.
By now it was clear that the internal dynamics of Pakistani institutional dysfunction were playing out and the deep state was hitting back with vengeance. There was simply no point talking and it was a road downhill, but with India in control. The talks were indefinitely suspended, with Jaishankar continuing his tough talk. We remember Prime Minister Modi mentioning Baluchistan from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Aug 15, 2016. The context was that a day before, Sharif had dedicated Pakistan Independence Day to Kashmir in the aftermath of the Burhan Wani episode. Clearly, the red lines were not only made bolder but some earlier comfort zones were also broken.
The surgical strikes after Uri, the Balakot airstrikes post-Pulwama, the regional isolation of Pakistan through SAARC, and the pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), all indicate toward a hardnosed choice to inflict costs on each and every action of Pakistan vis a vis India.
Basit laments that Pakistan could not succeed in sustaining the narrative, even as Modi had a plan, and his government pursued it with doggedness. Through innumerable anecdotes and records from the Pakistani side, Basit's scrapbook tells you a story of Modi’s Pakistan policy slowly denuding his nation of many options in diplomacy. A picture emerges of a cornered Pakistan with little manoeuvrability. This then is Modi’s Pakistan policy: nimble-footed, aggressive, setting the agenda, and controlling the narrative. For more take a deep dive into Basit’s Hostility, the book.