The meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Russia is unlikely to change the underlying relationship, even as it generates headlines. Every time Indian and Pakistani prime ministers attend the same international venue, there are always enormous unfulfilled expectations.
Modi is currently on an eight-day visit to the five Central Asian countries (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and Russia. In Russia, he will participate in both the SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summits.
Modi came to power seeking to transform India and has started in the arena of foreign policy. Modi and his advisors believe that economics is what will take India forward, both domestically as well as internationally. Modi’s foreign trips have centered on encouraging investment in India.
When it comes to India’s neighbourhood, Modi’s first act upon winning the general elections was to invite all South Asian heads of government to his inauguration ceremony. While South Asia remains critical for India, the Modi philosophy is that India is willing to go the extra distance for those countries which will reciprocate. So when it comes to India’s immediate neighbours, New Delhi will give aid, offer trade and lines of credit; in return, those countries are expected to understand India’s security and strategic needs. India is providing $2 billion in aid to Afghanistan and Nepal, $2 billion line of credit to Bangladesh.
When it comes to South East and Central Asia, Modi has focused on aid, trade and connectivity. So India has offered $1 billion in aid to Mongolia, $100 million to Vietnam and is investing in road and rail links in the region.
Nawaz Sharif came into power seeking to change Pakistan’s policies towards India and Afghanistan. However, like with his civilian predecessors, a silent coup by the military ensured that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies were not in his hands. As I point out in my book Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment frames foreign and security policy especially when it deals with India and Afghanistan. Pakistan faces an enormous domestic jihadi threat but India is still seen as the existential enemy and policy towards Afghanistan is still framed with India in mind.
Right from the 1990s India has sought to build economic ties with all its neighbours, including Pakistan. Pakistan’s leaders, primarily the military-intelligence establishment, have opposed deep economic ties with India arguing for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute before ties are normalised. As recently as June 2015, Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz stated that Pakistan would not hold talks with India on "Indian terms" and ruled out any dialogue if the agenda did not include "Kashmir and water issues".
What Pakistan’s establishment fails to understand is that border disputes have rarely prevented growth of economic ties between countries: China-Taiwan, China-Japan, China-South Korea and India-China. Instead, economic ties often help countries discuss disputes in a calmer atmosphere and build trust.
Pakistan may not want to build economic ties with India but all of Pakistan’s neighbours, including Afghanistan, seek these ties. The laws of economics dictate that if Pakistan does not align itself it will end up becoming isolated. When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited India in April 2015 he stated that if Pakistan did not give Afghanistan transit trade to India, Afghanistan would deny Pakistan the same into Central Asia.
Every Indian prime minister since 1947 has seen improving ties between India and Pakistan as their legacy. Modi is the first prime minister who sees a different legacy. In Modi’s worldview, India would be willing to build ties with Pakistan if the latter gave up proxy warfare and sought to economically integrate itself with its neighbours, India and Afghanistan.
If the Pakistani establishment thought that under Modi there would be business as usual, the last one year should have demonstrated how wrong they were. While India and Pakistan have normal relations and the two prime ministers speak to each other and exchange saris and mangos, India has not resumed the comprehensive dialogue process. When foreign secretary S Jaishankar visited Pakistan in March 2015, he was keen to emphasise his trip was part of his “SAARC yatra” and not a resumption of a dialogue process.
Similarly, in the last one year cross border firing on the line of control has often escalated as the Indian side has always responded strongly. As Indian home minister Rajnath Singh stated in April 2015, “India will never provoke conflict by being the first to open fire across the borders but will never back off.”
Meetings alone do not change policies; paradigm shifts are required to do that. Modi is trying to undertake a paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy. Modi is on a mission to take India into the next century and integrate India economically with countries around the world. If Pakistan’s leaders understand that they will benefit by economic integration instead of being aloof then the two countries can move forward, otherwise we will be back to handshakes, candles at Wagah and cricket diplomacy interspersed with sabre-rattling.