Modi’s ‘Poker’ Diplomacy

Modis poker diplomacy

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been playing this game ever since he assumed power in May 2014. After a long chill in India-Pakistan relations, Narendra Modi suddenly arrived in Lahore on a surprise ‘hurricane’ goodwill visit to personally greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and to make a gracious appearance on his granddaughter’s wedding ceremony. His short Lahore yatra, though kept undisclosed till the very last moments, was a rare cheerful event in the troubled history of India-Pakistan relations. Ostensibly, there couldn’t have been a better ending, bilaterally as well as regionally, to the otherwise turbulent 2015.

The credit for this ingeniously choreographed Bollywood-style venture goes entirely to Narendra Modi who, from the very first day after assuming his office, has been in the driver’s seat, not only controlling the ‘temperature’ in Islamabad by keeping it constantly in a ‘reactive’ rather than ‘active’ mode but also managing almost every development in India-Pakistan relations. He is master in creating illusions that only a seasoned chess player would make against an amateur rival. He knows when to move his chess pieces and when to readjust them. He also knows when to checkmate and how to reposition his piece on its square without even being seen doing so.

Modi spares no opportunity to be truly himself – as he was in inviting the Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. It was a patronizing gesture from someone who had been speaking of other countries in the region and their leaders with contempt. In his speech on the occasion, Modi boasted that the presence of the regional leaders had sent a clear message to the world about India’s strength. We would certainly have been better off by not letting Modi equate Pakistan with other smaller countries in the region which because of their limited size and clout cannot stand up to India’s hegemonies.

Modi was again truly himself when on his maiden visit to Dhaka in December 2014 he gloated over India’s role in the 1971 dismemberment of Pakistan. There couldn’t have been a more provocative statement thus far from any Indian leader. The year 2015 saw Modi’s sudden transformation. In February, prior to the 2015 Cricket World Cup, as a Big Three leader, he called Nawaz Sharif to convey his good wishes while ordering BCCI not to play the committed series with Pakistan. Then he sent his new foreign secretary to Islamabad as a gesture of ‘goodwill’ while in reality, the visit was only part of a routine regional Saarc yatra.

Modi made another five-minute telephone call to our prime minister at the beginning of Ramadan as yet another gracious gesture. Indeed, diplomacy is all about illusions. We see what is not and see not what is. Whatever Modi’s real motives, his dramatic Lahore visit marked the biggest surprise of all his diplomatic moves since he came to power. Beginning with his two-minute ‘whispering’ tête-à-tête with Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of Climate Change Summit in Paris on November 30, he sent his foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad for Heart of Asia Conference where she announced the decision on resumption of long-stalled India-Pakistan dialogue.

Modi’s out of the blue telephone call from Kabul to Nawaz Sharif and then within hours landing in Lahore on December 25, and then within a week, a bizarre terrorist ‘hold-out’ at India’s Pathankot airbase, all came together suddenly in a curious influx of ecstatic illusions in India-Pakistan logjam. No wonder, questions abound on all these high-voltage events. Particularly, his theatrical appearance in Lahore as a grand gesture looked too unreal to be true. Those familiar with Modi’s proclivities found this dramatic event typically in keeping with his theatrical style of politics. Others stood aghast on the superficiality of the event with some describing it as sheer ‘poker diplomacy’.

Indeed, it was a stroke of genius that left everyone clueless on his real motives and intentions. The media in both countries was left fretting to speculate, spinning all sorts of wild theories and outlandish scenarios. Even The New York Times questioned the credibility of Modi’s quirky move. Not denying the significance of Modi’s impromptu trip to Lahore, it said the Indian leader in the past has moved from one policy to the other and described it as “a diplomatic dance”. Apparently, it was under domestic compulsions and irresistible external pressures as well as the fear of being left out in the emerging ‘connectivity’ networks in the region that Modi was out there to play his trump card.

The people in both countries as well as those in South Asia saw in Modi’s move a glimmer of hope for peace in their troubled region. But in reality, it was a move that only a hard-core Kautilya disciple could conceive. And Modi took full advantage of Nawaz Sharif’s uninhibited, peace ‘temptations’ to give his own peace ‘pretensions’ a new high profile dimension. He looked cheerful and triumphant as he left Lahore after a warm, cozy huddle with Nawaz Sharif. Whether one accepts or not, Modi’s Lahore yatra could be best summed up in the famous Latin phrase “veni, vidi, vici” that Julius Caesar used after his quick victory in  a short war against Pharnaces around 46BC.

Modi’s sense of elation was not entirely baseless. The story of their ‘goodwill’ conversation at Nawaz Sharif’s personal residence in Jati Umra says it all. Their amicable encounter was so cordial that during their almost 50-minute conversation, there was no mention of any substantive matter of each other’s concern. According to an insider’s account, it was a rare bonhomie with “Sharif really relaxed…and using Punjabi humour to keep everyone at ease”.  If that was really so, the dialogue process, it seems, is going to be great fun. But here one is reminded of the famous line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.”

Certainly, the Jati Umra meeting was not an occasion for substantive discussion. It was a personal visit that media perhaps hyped beyond proportions. When it comes to brass-tacks, both will have to bring some seriousness of purpose to the dialogue process. The fact that neither Kashmir nor terrorism was mentioned in the conversation may have been a mutual atmospheric gesture but in effect it did amount to our acquiescing to India’s policy of obfuscating Kashmir into the issue of terrorism. This is what every Indian prime minister from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, taking advantage of the global anti-terror sentiment, has sought to ensure through a cold-blooded realpolitik since 2001.

Perhaps, Modi was tempted by the ‘low-hanging’ harvest his last two predecessors had been sowing and nurturing. Whether we accept it or not, at the end of the day, Modi not only managed to globally elevate his personal profile as a ‘man of peace’ but also ensured he was leaving the ball again in Pakistan’s court with the dialogue prospect already overcast with Pathankot shadows. Within days, after the grand Lahore soiree, Pakistan found itself facing the same old music.

There is absolutely no room now for unrealistic hopes and euphoric expectations from the latest Modi-generated euphoria. Mutual mistrust and apprehensions on both sides are too deep to evaporate simply by looking for miracles through shady backchannel deals. Their problems are real and will not disappear or work out on their own as some people on both sides have lately started believing.

India-Pakistan peace will certainly not come through corporate intermediaries or exchange of personal cameos including gifts of jewelry, saris, shawls, safas (turbans) or even gestures of clasped hands. It will come only through purposeful dialogue and constructive engagement on the basis of peaceful solution of their problems, including Kashmir.

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