The expected thing has happened. India has called off talks with Pakistan, objecting to the Pakistan high commissioner's meeting with a Kashmiri separatist group. The relationship between the two countries has historically gone through a lot of ups and down and Monday's development certainly creates a stalemate.
Good relations with India's neighbours has been one of the cornerstones of Narendra Modi's foreign policy. He kickstarted the process with a masterstroke of calling the heads of all SAARC nations for his swearing in ceremony. The photo-op of Modi with Sharif and the subsequent 'saree diplomacy' indicated that both sides would be willing to bury their past differences and grow a new leaf in the thorny relationship. But the situation has only gone downhill from then. Till the end of July, there were 19 ceasefire violations by Pakistan. Modi, during his visit to Leh last week, warned Pakistan against waging a “proxy war”. But the attack on the LOC has continued unabated with 12 ceasefire in August so far.
On the other hand, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit has repeatedly provoked Indians. By saying Kashmiris have their full support or calling members of the Hurriyat for discussion, he was intentionally raising the pitch. Facing such a situation, Modi took the easier route of calling off the talks with Pakistan that were slated for later this month.
According to Jatin Desai, an expert in India-Pakistan relations, the peace process must be uninterrupted. “By calling off the talks, Modi has effectively played to the hardliners within his party and also in Pakistan. The fact is, if India had continued to pursue talk despite provocation from Pakistan, it could have gained the moral high ground. Now, Pakistan can point fingers to India accusing it of scuttling the talks,” he said.
This is not the first time that separatists have been invited for talks by the Pakistani high-commissioner. So India could have easily ignored the provocation. Also, the Hurriyat in particular or separatists in general doesn't really reflect the voice of the whole of Kashmir, with the group themselves being divided into separate groups. So this decision by Modi government in a sense gives more legitimacy to Hurriyat than it deserves.
In Pakistan, the army and civilian government often speaks in different voices. According to Desai, the recent upsurge in Pakistan created by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri has the army's blessings. Hence, the Modi government's move to call off talks in also a blow to the democratic process in Pakistan. Many experts believe that Modi's move may inadvertently help in strengthening the army and ISI's hold in Pakistan and weaken the pillars of democracy there. The Indian Council of Global Relations also says it would have been prudent of Modi to continue talks at this juncture. In a sense, a full circle has come in the India- Pakistan relationship which worsened with the beheading of an Indian soldier in January 2013. All the intermediate stop and start summit level talks have come to a nought and the situation is back to square one.
In reality, Modi like his predecessors doesn't really have a blueprint to approach the talks or how to stop Pakistan from indulging in “proxy wars”. The fact that he raised the pitch and rhetoric against Pakistan while he was in the opposition also restricts him from taking a centrist line. In a sense, Modi has fallen trap to his past actions and the pressure from the hawks of the Sangh Parivar and Pakistan army. Unfortunately, dabang Modi has failed to show the bravado which mild-mannered Vajpayee exhibited.