On Christmas Day, supporters of a peaceful, normal and prosperous South Asia region were buoyed by the surprise visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore on his way back from his travels to Moscow and Kabul. At the time, many Indians and Pakistanis felt that enthusiasts on both sides of the border were getting ahead of themselves. The images of an Indian Prime Minister embracing a Pakistani leader on the tarmac have a lot of symbolic power, but long, warm embraces between Modis and Sharifs won't solve Kashmir, they won't solve the Mumbai 26/11 case, and they won't resolve Sir Creek or Siachen. The troublesome thing about cynics is that they tend, in this region especially, to be right.
Criticizing symbolism in South Asia is a strange preoccupation - we, the subcontinent of over 1.5 billion mostly deeply religious people, thumbing our noses at symbols? The irony may be unmistakable. Yet, reducing the recent bonhomie between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and PM Modi as mere symbolism is also plainly inaccurate. The reactions of the Pakistani and Indian governments to the Pathankot terrorist attack prove, once again, that more interaction between the two countries is better than less.
Conventional wisdom about the motives for the Pathankot attack is that peace and normalization between India and Pakistan will generate rents for all groups in the region except the ones that thrive on conflict: principally, non-state actors based in Pakistan whose bread and butter is India-hatred. The theory is that by perpetrating a terrorist attack so soon after a highly successful albeit symbolic meeting between the leaders of the two countries, non-state actors could manipulate the bilateral dynamic and possibly cause delays or even termination of the detente process.
For this theory to work, India has to react to terrorist attacks on Indian soil-that it believes originate in Pakistan-by ceasing whatever conversations it is engaged in with Pakistan. For years, Indian and Pakistani leaders have sought to undermine this theory by what Mani Shankar Aiyar calls a process between the two countries that needs to be "uninterrupted, and uninterruptable".
There is, of course, a pretty serious flaw in the theory too. The theory can only really be tested across multiple terrorist attacks. No one could possibly want that. If the terrorists decide to relentlessly stage one attack after another, for example, even the most hard-core adherents to the talks process would find the pressure to suspend or terminate talks between the two countries to be irresistible.
Enter PM Modi and PM Sharif. The Paris COP21 sideline coffee table conversation, the truly out-of-the-box NSA meeting in Bangkok, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj's attendance of the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad and the Christmas love-in in Lahore were not reactions to terrorism or hardliner-pressure. After many years, the bilateral relationship had been supercharged by two men with a boldness and vision that inoculates the two countries from sudden reactions to events.
The conventional wisdom lens suggests that the Pathankot terrorist attack is meant to disrupt the bilateral relationship, possibly, even to poison it-certainly, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, war between India and Pakistan was palpable. This approach to processing or analyzing the Pathankot attack privileges the agency of whichever terrorist group was behind the attack. It not only makes such terrorist groups party to the relationship between two nuclear power states, but in fact elevates such terrorist groups to the level of arbiters of the relationship.
I would argue that the Pathankot attack needs to be seen for what it really is: a desperate attempt by terrorists to try to affect a process that has already achieved more in a couple of months than the terrorists can achieve in years of planning. When seeing the Pathankot attack from this lens, we can see that "symbolically" improved bilateral relationship has allowed both countries some relatively unprecedented space in reacting to the attack.
In India, Prime Minister Modi's use of the term "enemies of humanity" to describe the terrorists behind the Pathankot attack was widely seen as a concession of sorts to Pakistan-showing that he was not willing to jump to conclusions about the source of the attack. In Pakistan, the Foreign Office's almost immediate statement condemning the attack and reiterating the country's offer to support India in pursuing a response to the attack was seen as a change from the oft-hesitant Pakistani establishment in engaging India on issues related to terrorism.
Perhaps most importantly, Prime Minister Sharif's January 5 phone call to his Indian counterpart, to personally offer his strong condemnation and support signaled the most impactful by-product of the "symbolic" nature of the relationship between the two leaders.
On Thursday afternoon, soon after returning from a trip to Sri Lanka, PM Sharif chaired a high-level meeting of his security and foreign policy team, with National Security Adviser, Lt Gen (retd) Naseer Janjua and Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz in the room. The Prime Minister's plate is more than full these days, with an ornery Saudi Arabia and a provocative Iran on one side, and an irate India on the other. As the Saudi Foreign Minister landed in Islamabad, it was India's temper that PM Sharif was busy trying to moderate. It represents a remarkably bold continuation of the Prime Minister's efforts to build and sustain a relationship with his Indian counterpart that makes the bilateral relationship immune to being hijacked by terrorists.
In India, all this may not mean much, but Pakistani hawks have been relentless in their hounding of PM Sharif since he took office. The phone call to PM Modi has given them something fresh to feed on - a sign of weakness and a tacit admission that Pakistan has anything at all that it can do to help India fight terror. This is obviously anathema for the small but vocal crew of Pakistanis that prefer constant bitterness with India over the detente being pursued by PM Sharif.
It turns out the symbolism of the handshakes, the long hugs, the saris and chaadars being exchanged, and the mutual admiration of two mama's boys has created the capacity on both sides of the border to absorb the shock and horror of terror. If both leaders can stay the course, answers to Pathankot are not going to be as elusive as we may think, and answers to the bigger riddles, while not around the corner, at least become conceivable once again.
(Mosharraf Zaidi is a former Pakistan diplomat and government advisor who writes a weekly column for The News, one of the largest English-language newspapers published in the country.)
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