Prime Minister Modi Fumbles on Pakistan

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, fumbled an early test of leadership this week when he canceled a high-level meeting with Pakistan. There are no two countries in the world that need to talk, and talk regularly, more than these nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors whose tensions must be carefully managed.

Mr Modi raised expectations that he would work harder at resolving cross-border differences when he took the unorthodox step of inviting Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, along with other regional leaders to his inauguration in May. The photo of the two men shaking hands came to symbolize the promise of that moment.

But that felicitous picture seemed a fading memory when, on Monday, India canceled foreign-secretary-level talks, which would have been the first in two years, that were scheduled to take place in Islamabad on Aug. 25. The proximate cause was India’s anger over a meeting that Pakistan’s ambassador to India held with a separatist leader from Kashmir, the disputed territory over which the two countries have fought three wars.

But there were other factors as well. Since Mr Modi took office, violations of a 2003 cease-fire along the Line of Control, the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir, have grown more frequent, 30 by India’s count, 57 by Pakistan’s. Meanwhile, political rhetoric has grown more strident. In his toughest statement on Pakistan to date, Mr Modi last week charged that Pakistan “has lost the strength to fight a conventional war but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism.” He even chose a politically charged venue for his remarks, the border town of Kargil, where the two sides fought in 1999.

Pakistan may not have helped matters by scheduling a meeting with the separatist leader from Kashmir before the talks with India, especially if, as Indian’s foreign ministry suggested, India was undertaking “serious initiatives to move bilateral ties forward.” Pakistan has had regular contact with Kashmiri separatist leaders over the years, and previous Indian prime ministers, including the last prime minister from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajayee, lived with the practice.

A more plausible excuse is India’s mounting irritation with the border violations and the possibility that they could disrupt elections in Kashmir expected in October and November. These are unquestionably problems in a volatile region, and both sides are justified in calling for the shooting to stop. India also has legitimate concerns about the willingness of Pakistan, especially its army, to tolerate if not encourage anti-India attacks by extremist groups, like the 2008 bombing in Mumbai.

But canceling the meeting was an overreaction on India’s part, especially when it could have served as an opportunity to discuss grievances and press for a solution. Absent such an airing, there is a tendency on both sides to escalate the tensions, with the Indian news media emphasizing Mr Modi’s willingness to take a tough stand and Pakistan asserting it was not “subservient” to India.

There will always be political excuses not to take risks. Both leaders have challenges at home, but Mr Modi, who won a huge victory in the May election, is in the strongest political position, while Mr Sharif is facing street protests led by politicians seeking his ouster.

What’s needed is a meeting between the leaders to establish a continuing dialogue. Next month’s United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York offers a good venue. It would be foolish and dangerous to let this episode destroy the chance for a more stable relationship. - Courtesy The New York Times’ Editorial Board

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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