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Real outcome at Ufa: PMO trumps ministry

- Back to NSA diplomacy but with a change

Modi 

July 11: The most glaring outcome of the Ufa meeting between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif is that in a five-and-a-half-month turf battle between the Prime Minister's Office and the external affairs ministry for control of foreign policy, the PMO has emerged victorious.

By the logic of diplomatic engagements, in order to take the India-Pakistan relationship forward, their Prime Ministers should have agreed yesterday to pick up the thread of bilateral ties from where they had been left off by the two foreign ministries on August 19 last year: that is, resume the dialogue between foreign secretaries, abruptly cancelled over the Pakistani high commissioner's meeting with Kashmiri separatists.

But Modi insisted at Ufa, according to trustworthy accounts, that the resumption of dialogue should be at the level of the national security advisers, not between the foreign secretaries.

It is not as if the national security advisers of India and Pakistan have never been the pivot of a rapprochement between the two governments.

Before Manmohan Singh met Pervez Musharraf in September 2004, national security advisers J.N. Dixit and Tariq Aziz met secretly in New Delhi and set the agenda for the first meeting held in New York between their two leaders. Subsequently, the two national security advisers met under the radar in locations like Dubai and nearly hammered out a solution to the Kashmir dispute.

The road ahead may seem like a replay of 2004 because the cloak-and-dagger Dixit-Aziz talks were also necessitated by the need to keep the external affairs ministry out of the core of the bilateral engagement.

Yet the circumstances were different: the need then was to keep external affairs minister Natwar Singh completely in the dark lest he subvert it, as he almost did a few minutes before the September summit when he became privy to all that was going on.

Few career foreign secretaries would have dared to do that to a minister, but Dixit was a political appointee. Besides, that was his style. And it nearly ended up making history.

Sharif 

The problem post-Ufa is that Doval is more like Natwar Singh and less like Dixit. This writer has had two long conversations with Doval in Washington about Pakistan: he is obsessed with the "nuisance" neighbour - as Modi referred to Pakistan in Dhaka recently.

On the face of it, the Ufa process could survive the obsession of one man in government. But the process may be a non-starter if its driver on the Indian side, as the conversation in Washington revealed, is stuck in a time warp on Pakistan.

Doval's view of the country he is tasked to engage has not changed from the time he was posted in Islamabad as an intelligence officer several decades ago. But Pakistan has evolved and the time warp does not augur well for what Modi wants to do.

When Modi proposed a dialogue between the national security advisers, his Pakistani counterpart readily agreed. Sharif, unlike Modi, does not have to pay heed to competing advice from any Ajit Dovals or Subrahmanyam Jaishankars at his end.

Sharif does not have a foreign minister. His foreign secretary is the nondescript Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, who previously held only positions such as ambassador to the Netherlands. Unlike in India, Sartaj Aziz, the adviser on foreign affairs and national security, is monarch of all he surveys in Pakistan's external affairs - as long as he does not upset the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, of course.

And Sartaj Aziz precisely knows what it is to deal with a BJP government in New Delhi. He could not have forgotten Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cold, menacing stare as the NDA Prime Minister's trusted lieutenant, Jaswant Singh, hauled him over the coals on Pakistan's betrayal of the Lahore spirit kindled by Vajpayee's visit. Aziz had gone to 7 Race Course Road, Vajpayee's residence, to negotiate a settlement of Kargil.

If Modi retains his present reservoir of political capital in the coming months, he could pick the low-hanging fruit in India-Pakistan relations before he heads to Islamabad for next year's South Asian summit. Sources close to him insist that this is what the Prime Minister intends to do.

These low-hanging fruits include settlement of the Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage disputes. Of these, Modi has a special interest in Sir Creek, which divides his native Gujarat from Sindh in Pakistan. The dispute relates to undemarcated water boundary.

The latter is a disputed navigation project on the Jhelum in Kashmir which India calls the Tulbul Navigation Project. The UPA government had virtually settled these two disputes with Pakistan, but Manmohan Singh had exhausted his political capital to settle anything at all with Islamabad by the time these disputes had been amicably resolved in principle.

Similarly, a broad settlement to Siachen has been left over on the table from the UPA's time: even the BJP government may find it difficult to push it through after it lost some of its momentum from the ruling party's defeat in the Delhi elections and the spate of corruption allegations against some BJP leaders in recent weeks.

All the same, if Modi follows in Vajpayee's footsteps and takes political risks with Islamabad by settling Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage and Siachen, he can be sure of a welcome in Islamabad that will rival anything his supporters were able to organise last year in New York's Madison Square Garden.

These apart, everything else in the joint statement in Ufa is old hat, which has either been said before at India-Pakistan summits or been already implemented. But public memory is short and Modi is a master at spin: so he has been able to project Ufa as a breakthrough.


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