If the much-talked-about handshake in New York between the Indian prime minister and his Pakistani counterpart was all about symbolism, no one knew it better than Manmohan Singh. He had himself predicted its modest outcome before setting off for the United Nations general assembly meet that was to provide the momentous occasion to the two premiers. The reason Mr Singh still persisted was because he wanted to deny the terrorists responsible for the dastardly attacks in Jammu on the eve of the meet the pleasure of derailing talks. Mr Singh’s prescience about the outcome of the meet stemmed from his realism — he knew that both he and Mr Sharif would be approaching each other with one hand tied behind their back. If the unchecked rise and influence of Islamist radicals in Pakistan, courtesy the patronage they have received from both the civilian and military establishments — was responsible for Mr Sharif’s predicament, it was the peculiar political climate fostered in India by an election season that was behind Mr Singh’s.
The Indian prime minister would perhaps have bothered less about electoral considerations had he, like Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, been absolutely sure of the backing of his party in pushing the envelope with Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are too many opinions in Mr Singh’s party that go in different directions. The dichotomy in the structure of political command has also deprived him of some of the energy and initiative that is his prerogative. Each time Mr Singh has tried to exercise this prerogative in foreign policy — be it in the case of India’s relations with Pakistan or with the United States of America — he has been stymied by the party’s narrow electoral interests. These interests once again came in the way of Mr Singh in his interaction with Mr Sharif. In fact, they blew up in his face when he found himself contradicted at home by the party’s vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, on the passing of a controversial ordinance. With his authority questioned by a jingoistic Opposition, and his party desperately trying to match that pitch, Mr Singh can hardly be expected to make a success out of his foreign sojourn.
Mr Singh has tried to pin Pakistan down on the “immediate” issue of cross-border terrorism, a subject he raised both in his speech at the UN general assembly and before the US president. Peace along the line of control has been made a pre-condition of all future negotiations, and since this is not something only a hotline between the directors general of military operations can assure, the peace talks, one may argue, have, for all practical purposes, become captive to larger machinations in both the countries that are beyond the control of either prime minister. Once again, the grand idea of creating a peace constituency in both the countries through trade and human ties has been given a hurried burial.