Each time a BJP government is seen as coming to office, a familiar question is heard: Could a BJP prime minister do a deal with Pakistan? The inevitable comparison is with Richard Nixon, the Republican president who broke the ice with China. This question is both valid and tiresome. It has found renewed mention in 2014, as opinion polls suggest Narendra Modi may become prime minister. The more optimistic (or excitable) are citing the precedent of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's outreach to Pakistan between 1999 and 2004.
So can Modi, should he become prime minister, achieve what Vajpayee did? To answer that, let us go back a decade and a half.
It is worth remembering Vajpayee's initial attempts to befriend Pakistan failed. In 1999, he travelled to Pakistan - the famous Delhi-Lahore bus yatra - and triggered heady emotions. Nawaz Sharif, then, as now, the prime minister in Islamabad, was receptive but the Pakistan army was cold. Within weeks General Pervez Musharraf had invaded Kargil. Next, in the summer of 2001, Vajpayee invited Musharraf to Agra. The Pakistani dictator misinterpreted the gesture as Indian surrender and the summit ended in a fiasco.
It was only in January 2002, a month after the terror attack on Parliament and following Indian troop mobilisation on the border, that Musharraf made a truly conciliatory statement. He agreed to dismantle the terror infrastructure and promised to neutralise the universities of religio-political extremism in his country. That he didn't - or couldn't - deliver is another matter.
Nevertheless a period of talks and negotiations began. Opening of trade routes was discussed, including between the two Kashmirs. The future of Kashmir itself was the subject of frank conversation. Visas became easier to get. All this culminated in Indian tourists going to a welcoming Pakistan and watching the 2004 cricket series. These were solid achievements and they carried into the early years of Manmohan Singh's government as well.
What caused the surly Musharraf of Agra 2001 to change, or least give the impression of change? There were three reasons. First, the events of 9/11 and the presence of American troops in the neighbourhood played a key role. The United States was then beginning a long military investment in Afghanistan. The George W Bush administration had good relations with New Delhi as well as Islamabad and emerged as an informal guarantor of good behaviour. Additionally, the war in Afghanistan became the greater jihad for south Asian Islamists. This took away pressure from India and Kashmir, which was relegated to the lesser jihad.
Second, by 2002, Musharraf was the undisputed leader of Pakistan. He commanded the army and had no political rival. In fact, he had a certain civil society popularity.
Third, the Indian economy was starting to shift gears. Investment, growth and job opportunities seemed to be rising. The middle class was optimistic. This gave Vajpayee the domestic political capital to venture a settlement with Pakistan even in ways that previously seemed impracticable.
Presuming he becomes Prime Minister next month, will this happy configuration be available to Modi? Analyse the strands.
In 2002, the US had just arrived in and committed itself to Afghanistan. In 2014, it is waiting to depart and its future role in the region is in doubt, as is the security situation on India's western frontiers. Also, unlike Bush, Barack Obama does not have a grand strategy that even remotely matches India's. His influence and leverage in south Asia is lower than that of any American president in some 20 years.
That apart, internal power equations in Pakistan are anything but clear. The ongoing friction between Sharif and the army chief, the threat from various factions of the Pakistan Taliban, the state of sectarian violence and unrest: this is a far cry from the relative predictability of Musharraf's early years.
Finally, in 2002-03, India was entering a decade-long boom; in 2014, it has just exited that boom. Without rescuing the economy and reviving the national mood, no Prime Minister will have the domestic political capital to risk diplomatic innovations, even if he wants to. Should he move into 7 Race Course Road, these factors will tend to influence Modi's Pakistan policy.
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