Home > 2016 > Indo-Pak Diplomacy: Modi’s Pakistan Policy

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 9 New Delhi February 20, 2016

Indo-Pak Diplomacy: Modi’s Pakistan Policy

Monday 22 February 2016

by Zainab Akhter


The India-Pakistan conflict is categorised as one of the most enduring due to its continuity and longevity since the division of the sub-continent albeit with varying degrees. The crux of the dispute is largely over Kashmir, territories and water, besides a nuclear arms race since 1998. The unresolved disputes over time have resulted in deep-rooted mistrust and hostility between the two nations with a deep impact on the dimension of inter-state and societal relations between the two countries. In order to avoid head-on collisions and conflict, India and Pakistan have framed joint-mechanisms to resolve the issues peacefully through bilateral dialogues. But the implementation of polices have hugely been affected by the national politics of the respective countries and the indulgence of a non-state actor, which India blames to have roots in the Pakistani soil.

India’s Pakistan policies have always been largely influenced by the political ideology of the party in power. The Congress and its coalition partners have unanimously voiced for dialogues as the medium to deal with Pakistan. Whereas on the other hand the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) in the past have been critical of such opinions except for Atal Behari Vajpayee who stood firm for a friendly neighbourhood policy. Before coming to power Modi vouched for a strong muscular Pakistan policy and emphasised on drawing red lines in cases of third-party interventions in Indo-Pak affairs. But soon enough post a landslide victory, tempered his own rhetoric on Pakistan by inviting Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony. Since then, he has been throwing packages in his Pakistan policy although in a good way. The decision to carry forward the bilateral peace process and his Lahore touch-down marked a humongous shift in Modi’s Pakistan policy.

Reshaping Strategy 

Putting to rest the contemplations of any military solution to the Pakistan problem, the invitation to Nawaz Sharif for the swearing-in ceremony sent a message to the world that India was ready to talk to its hostile neighbour albeit on its own terms. Echoing the same sentiments Frederic Grare, a South Asian analyst, writes that the cordial meeting between the two Prime Ministers, although not ground-breaking, was a signal that New Delhi was open to resetting relations, but on its own terms, most of which have to do with preventing terrorist attacks originating in Pakistan or with Pakistani support.1 Sharif’s India visit marked the beginning of a fresh start between India and Pakistan removing the stumbling blocks in the bilateral peace process which was stalled due to the Mumbai terror attacks and Pakistan’s dilly-dallying tactics to deliver on the terrorism front.

They again met on the sidelines of the Ufa Summit and agreed upon a meeting of the National Security Advisors (NSA) of the two countries to discuss about issues of security in New Delhi. The fact that terrorism found a prominent mention in the list of issues to be discussed between the NSAs with no mention of Kashmir irked both the policy-makers and military establishments in Pakistan. Therefore the Joint Statement was not well received and sharply criticised in Pakistan. In a bid to put Kashmir back on the agenda the Pakistani side advanced a proposal that its NSA would meet the Kashmiri separatist leaders on his visit to India. Modi showed red signal to the appeal terming that Kashmir is a bilateral issue and any third-party intervention will not be tolerated. Both sides stood firm on their statements and as a result the talks were called off. For the Modi Government it was yet another golden chance to display that it has been successful in reshaping the terms of India’s engagement with Pakistan.

But eighteen months later with an aim to balance mutual antagonism with its need to expand the Indian economy, Modi attempted to reach out to Islamabad and benefit from an increase in relatively minuscule bilateral trade2 with Pakistan. The brief meeting between the two heads on the sidelines of the Climate Change Summit at Paris came amidst heightened tensions including cross-border violations that cancelled the talks. Paris was regarded by many as the icebreaker between India and Pakistan as one was anticipating a fizzle-down effect of the brewing escalation of tensions between the two countries at that point of time.

Moving forward from Paris and riding high on the new-found sprit, the NSAs of the two countries met away from media glare in a third country, Bangkok. This meeting came as a surprise without any prior announcements by any of the governments. The decision of the two governments to hold the meeting away from the limelight and camera in itself was a reassurance of the seriousness of both countries to take forward the bilateral talks keeping in conside-ration the aims and aspirations of both India and Pakistan. Where earlier the NSA talks were cancelled due to disagreement on the Kashmir issue, this time around the agreement by the Modi Government to talk more than terrorism was an indicator of a change in his Pakistan policy. This renewed the hope for the beginning of a peace process and reconciliation with Pakistan yet again.

Sushma’s Pakistan Visit

The biggest breakthrough came with the confirmation of Sushma Swarj’s visit to Pakistan albeit in a guise to attend the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan. The Modi Government’s decision to go ahead with the decision was a clear sign of his willingness to re-engage with Pakistan on a bilateral level. She was warmly received by her Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz, and also had a fruitful meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On the Pakistani soil in her speech Sushma Swarj invoked the need for coope-ration and peace stressing that India and Pakistan should display maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other. Her visit marked a decisive moment for the Modi Government of its Pakistan policy and was a clear sign that bilateral engagements were back on track. In an opinion piece for The Hindu, Suhasini Haider cites two reasons to explain what some may see as a complete turnaround by the Modi Government of its Pakistan policy. She explains that firstly, the government sees the dialogue between the two National Security Advisors in Bangkok as a real change from the past as Pakistan committed itself sincerely to addressing the issue of terrorism. Secondly, an assurance of cooperation by Pakistan on the Mumbai 26/11 attack also helped in overcoming the impasse in the ties.3 Sushma’s Pakistan visit was a turning-point wherein both India and Pakistan agreed to resume the bilateral dialogue. A Joint Statement was released and it mainly focused on starting the bilateral dialogue, renamed as ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’. Previously it was called ‘resumed dialogue’ which was initially started as a ‘composite dialogue’ to resolve bilateral issues between the two nations.

The Indo-Pak composite dialogue is rooted in the 1997 SAARC Summit4 at Male where the then Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, agreed to create a composite dialogue process (CDP). The CDP survived until the Mumbai terror attacks led to its suspension in 2008. Both India and Pakistan agreed to the new comprehensive bilateral dialogue and directed the Foreign Secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule meetings. The agreed areas for bilateral dialogue under the new comprehensive bilateral dialogue included Peace and Security, Confidence-building Measures, Jammu and Kashmir, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, Economic and Commercial Cooperation, Counter-terrorism, Narcotics Control, Humani-tarian Issues, People-to-People Exchanges and Religious Tourism. This new agreement reviewed the stalled bilateral dialogue process between India and Pakistan opening a window of opportunity to discuss various conflicting issues at the government level. The new ten-point comprehensive bilateral dialogue replaced the old eight-point composite dialogue and the two new additions, that is,. Terrorism and Religious Tourism is reflective of the seriousness of both the nations to talk about mechanisms to counter terrorism as well as improve tourism between the two countries.

Surprise Lahore Halt

The highlight of Modi’s Pakistan policy was his surprise touchdown in Lahore though for a private ceremony. Apparently there was no previous announcement of the visit and it was made public just through a tweet that Modi will make a stopover at Lahore to wish Sharif on his birthday and briefly attend his grand-daughter’s wedding. The red-carpet welcome by Nawaz Sharif and the warm handshakes and hugs made for a real Kodak moment for the heads of the two states. Talking about the vision of an interconnected South Asia, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had once famously talked about the possibility of breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Although in his ten years of tenure as the PM he could not live the dream, his successor, Modi, gave a shape to this dream when he lunched in Kabul, had tea at Lahore and was back in Delhi for dinner. Taking into consideration his earlier tough stand on Pakistan, a break in the pattern like his brief Lahore visit was seen by many as a ray of hope and as heralding a new dawn. Besides, it was the first time an Indian Premier was visiting Pakistan in twelve years and hence it raised the hopes for peace on both sides of the border. Additionally, Modi’s U-turn in his Pakistan policy blurred his anti-Pakistan rhetoric that had previously underlined the need for drawing red lines and a muscular Pakistan policy. Although the Opposition back home made noises about Modi’s flawed and secret Pakistan policy calling it a ‘consistently inconsistent’ policy, it was Modi’s Pakistan moment and the noises could not be sustained.

Sushma’s visit followed by Modi’s brief halt at Lahore sent a positive signal to the outside world and an underlying message that India will define its own course of engagement with Pakistan. Some experts in the Indian policy-circles hint that these high-level visits by Indian dignitaries can possibly be a step towards preparing the ground for Modi’s official visit to Pakistan to attend the upcoming SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad. Modi concluded his foreign trips with a year-end visit to Pakistan which was followed by an official announcement of the Foreign Secretary-level talks in mid-January 2016 to be held in Pakistan; this became thus the first step in the latest comprehensive peace process.

Pathankot Fiasco 

Just when the stage was set for dialogue and talks, the terrorist attack on an Indian airbase at Pathankot once again jolted the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. The incident exposed potholes in the security arrangements and the Modi Government faced a series of backlashes on the national front. This was a huge setback for Modi’s Pakistan policy at a time when the bilateral comprehensive dialogue had just been re-launched. The India-Pakistan peace talks have been derailed by untoward incidents in the past as well. A terrorist attack on India and India blaming Pakistan for making it the target of its home-grown terrorists have become a regular feature of India-Pakistan relations. There was a clear understanding between the Indian and Pakistani establishments before agreeing upon the new peace process that such incidents can replicate again and that the dialogue should not be disrupted in such a scenario. Therefore there has not been any announcement of cancellation of talks from the Indian side this time. The Indian Government has demanded satisfactory follow-up action and Pakistan has assured necessary steps will be taken. But it cannot be denied that the Pathankot incident has raised serious doubts about the bilateral peace process’ durability.

Right now there is tremendous pressure on the Modi Government at home to discontinue the talks until Pakistan takes concerted steps to contain terrorism and attacks on Indian soil. At the same time there is international pressure, especially from the US, to continue the bilateral talks with Pakistan. The National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, has rightly pointed out that ‘Pathankot’ is a litmus-test for Modi’s Pakistan policy. How Modi handles and deals with Pakistan hereafter will shape and reveal the true nature of his Pakistan policy. If he follows his predecessors and decides not to talk until mandatory action by Pakistan, then the Indo-Pak bilateral talks would head towards a standoff as much is not expected from the Pakistani side when it comes to countering terrorism. Continuing with the dialogue will mean tremendous scrutiny from the Opposition and Modi’s natural allies on the political front.

Challenges and Roadblocks 

Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asian affairs, once rightly said that India cannot make peace and Pakistan cannot make war. Only an ‘out-of-box’ solution by the Modi Government can save the comprehensive bilateral dialogue from not facing a fate similar to that of the composite peace dialogues of the past. At this juncture Modi cannot afford to have a rigid Pakistan policy because of various domestic and international pressures. He is confronted with a challenge of implementing an ambitious domestic and foreign policy agenda. His tactical change in dealing with Pakistan bilaterally has to pass through a rough patch in order to prove its worth. Modi has come with the reputation of an economic performer and a hard-line nationalist and he will try his best to live up to this reputation but it looks like his government is beginning to realise the difficulty of translating promises into action.

The attack on the airbase near the Pakistan border has made it difficult for India to stick to the plan and pushed the Modi Government into a dilemma whether or not to walk the talk. On the one hand if Modi goes ahead with talks with Pakistan, he will risk facing criticism for abandoning a principle his government and political party have long advocated, that is, terror and talks can’t go hand in hand. On the other hand, people advocating peace and dialogue with Pakistan believe that Modi’s Pakistan visit has opened a new window of opportunity for peace and if the government decides to close it, that will lead the India-Pakistan relations into the same old rut of hostility and mistrust. A pull-back at this crucial juncture would result in the quick demise of a process Modi had personally and publicly initiated. Pakistan, on its part, has for the first time taken prompt action by arresting several individuals affiliated to the JeM suspected to have engineered the Pathankot attack. Would Pakistan continue cooperating and deliver results? What will be the fate of the NSA-level talks? Modi’s terms of engagement with Islamabad and his Pakistan policy will depend in the coming days on the cooperation by the Pakistani Government in preventing fresh terror attacks on Indian soil.


From the beginning Modi’s foreign policy seems to have stressed on reaching out to the South Asian neighbours, including Pakistan. There is a huge difference in Modi’s approach in dealing with Pakistan and that of the previous NDA Govern-ment. The latter reached out to political parties and policy-makers in the country to shape a coherent Pakistan policy. Modi’s approach to deal with Pakistan is totally opposite and is considered to be more of a personalised diplomacy. There is no doubt he has been able to reshape India’s Pakistan policy in terms of engaging with the neighbour on its own terms but this should not be read as Pakistan being compelled to give into pressures from India.

India-Pakistan relations have always been tumultuous from the inception and the issues cannot be solved without coherent strategies from both sides. There is a need on the part of the Modi Government to spell out clearly its Pakistan policy and reach out to various sections to evolve a result-orientated policy-perspective. There have been many ups and downs in India-Pakistan relations under the Modi Government till now. The most important development was the revival of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue to resolve issues through discussions. The challenge will now be to keep terror and talks separate and not let a Pathankot-like incident hijack the whole Indo-Pak relations. At the moment the fate of the renewed bilateral dialogue has again become uncertain and it will be interesting to watch how Modi comes out of this dilemma to walk the talk.


1. Frederic Grare, ‘India-Pakistan Relations: Does Modi Matter’, Washington Journal, January 21, 2015.

2. Irfan Haider, ‘Nawaz-Modi Meet on Sidelines of Paris Summit’, The Dawn, November 30, 2015.

3. Suhasini Haider, ‘India-Pakistan Talks: The View from Rawalpindi’, The Hindu, December 11, 2015.

4. Sajad Paddar, ‘The Composite Dialogue between India and Pakistan: Structure, Process and Agency’, Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics, 2012.

5. Stephen P. Cohen, Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum, Brookings Institution Press: Washington, 2013.

A former Research Officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, Zainab Akhter is a Ph.D scholar, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.