Govt, Oppn need to be on the same page on Pak

Govt, Oppn need to be on the same page on Pak

Finally, the verbal fireworks have started once again threatening to sink whatever little the forever sparring neighbours – India and Pakistan – had gained in the past few months. One was wondering why it did not happen when Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was in India probing the Pathankot terror strike. The team went on its business as India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) played the perfect host, taking them to Pathankot airbase besides providing case documents and access to some key witnesses.

Sharing the results of investigations in their country, the JIT told India that they were collecting admissible evidence outside Pakistan that would legally enable them to be used in prosecution. The NIA demanded a reciprocal visit to Pakistan and access to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Maulana Masood Azhar, whom India considers the mastermind of Pathankot attack and a string other terror strikes.

An official statement on April 1 cited these demands and a JIT promise to act on India’s Letters Rogatory seeking information Azhar and others. Unofficial briefings by Indian officials suggested that JIT gave its nod for NIA investigators to hit the Islamabad streets soon. They too gave a picture of the JIT officers, who included an ISI officer, surprised at the extent of evidences provided by the Indian side, a claim that was not verified by Indian media.

The JIT officials never interacted with the Indian journalists. However, subsequent events that unfolded in Islamabad and New Delhi with Pakistani players as the lead actors showed how fragile the latest shot at finding a starting point for renewed peace process. It had all the potential for a flare-up. At the same time, it also gives an opportunity for India not to fall into the usual trap but to play the cool-headed, patient player looking at a permanent solution.

Yes, it is not easy. But no one ever expected that the JIT visit would dramatically alter the ground rules. The maximum one thought was that it could provide positive optics, a platform to dispel the doomsayers’ predictions that Islamabad could do little to contain state-sponsored terrorism against India.

The first sign of trouble emerged when a Pakistani media report cited unnamed JIT officials to claim that India “stage-managed” the Pathankot attack. Another report fictitiously linked the murder of an NIA official probing the Pathankot case to India’s lack of evidence in the terror strike. It appeared the Pak media gulped what a section gave them without a wink, in a similar way Indian journalists highlighted reports about JIT’s acceptance of NIA’s version during their week-long interactions that began on March 27. India prudently waited for Pakistan Foreign Ministry’s statement on the matter, which was sober.

The googly was not fired till Pakistan Ambassador to India Abdul Basit walked into the lawns of Foreign Correspondents Club located near the Supreme Court of India for a press conference. He talked about “suspended” peace process and virtually ruled out a reciprocal visit by NIA, an international norm in such instances. Again, the Pakistani Foreign Office has some sober words to offer. Basit’s wasn’t a slip of tongue and he was not echoing his political masters in Islamabad. This exposed the countering influences in Pakistani establishment besides raising questions whether the army was fully backing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts for peace in the region.

Surprise landing
What does it mean for Prime Minister Narendra Modi? The Indian leader had invested his personal stake in improving the ties with its troubled neighbour, which some analysts say is a failed state. He had made a surprise landing in Lahore to meet and wish Sharif for his birthday last year. A week later, JeM terrorists targeted the airbase. For many, it was the re-run of a backstab 17 years ago – Kargil happened soon after A B Vajpayee’s historic 1999 bus ride to Lahore. With Parliament all set to re-open later April, Modi will face tough questions on what India gained from the JIT visit. One who criticised the previous UPA government for what he described as meek responses to Pakistan, Modi will face the same kind of rhetoric he once unleashed. 

Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have already taken to high-octane campaign on the issue. They protested outside the Pathankot airbase when the JIT visited there, citing ISI official’s presence. AAP’s Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wanted an apology from Modi for bowing to Pakistan while his party minister even sought to describe him as an ISI agent. Their pro-active protest in Pathankot could be linked to their positioning ahead of Punjab Assembly polls next year.

CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury is more direct when he says that we need a consistent and coherent Pakistan policy, not something which fluctuates between cancelling NSA talks to inviting ISI to Pathankot. He also questions the efficacy of the JIT exercise as it was not backed by a Letter Rogatory from a Pakistan court and how the evidence given by NIA have any value.

Questions like these remain, raising doubts about the whole exercise. The government needs to address these concerns and instill confidence among people about its intentions on dealing with the issue. India needs to corner Pakistan on its action against terrorists and at the same time support the section that is eager for a permanent solution.

Modi needs to take his allies and opposition into confidence. It may be easy to demonise the opponent but rhetoric and grand standing is not going to help, the rulers and opposition need to accept it. New Delhi needs to pick up the threads and move forward because to expect a diametrically divided Pak administration to take the lead is just high hope. For that, the ruling and opposition coalition needs to be on the same page.
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