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What does Modi’s phone call to Imran really mean

By Jyoti Malhotra

With one phone call to Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown the stuff powerful leaders are made up of. Less than 10 months before he stakes his claim to re-election, Modi has once again thrown down the gauntlet for peace with Pakistan.

 

 

All the sound and fury about “eenth ka jawaab pathar se” vis-à-vis Pakistan, all the eye-for-an-eye comments and teaching Pakistan a lesson with the 2016 surgical strikes, all the patronising remarks about Imran Khan by sundry BJP ministers like R.K. Singh were, in one blow, thrown out of the window. Just like that.

 

Make no mistake. This is a redux of 2015 when the Prime Minister made that high-profile visit to Lahore to attend the wedding of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter.

 

Perhaps you could say, with this gesture, the PM wants to desperately be seen as yet another Atal Bihari Vajpayee – it would be fantastic for the subcontinent if that was true. But we are not there yet. Not by a long shot.

 

First of all, this is just a phone call. Second, Modi hasn’t made any conciliatory gestures towards Kashmir, an essential ingredient in anyone hoping to settle Pakistan. In fact, he has done quite the opposite by withdrawing support from his own coalition government, thereby raising the temperature of the ongoing crisis in that crisis-ridden state.

Still, let’s give the devil its due. Modi, by picking up the phone and calling Pakistan’s prime minister-elect, is doing four things: He is responding to Imran’s early remarks last week that if “India took one step towards peace and reconciliation, he would take two.”

Modi has taken one step. Now, let’s wait for Imran to reciprocate.

Second, Modi is indicating with his phone call that he is willing to leash the anti-Pakistani trolls. (The anti-Muslim trolls will stay because they are his insurance, in case anything goes wrong.) This also shows that he will not tolerate anyone coming in the way of the possibility that he may go down in history as the man who made peace with his troublesome neighbour.

Not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee could do that. Modi now has a shot at it. Will he succeed?

Third, the Prime Minister is indicating that he finally understands what it means to be a world leader. Modi, by far, has been the most peripatetic PM India has seen, at least since I.K. Gujral in the mid-1990s (in fact, Gujral used to travel so much, media headlines had routinely begun to say, ‘Welcome back, prime minister’).

There is no way the PM, whose political instincts are as sharp as a Japanese Aritsugu knife, has not picked up from the several leaders he routinely embraces that they want him to “fix his neighbourhood first”.

How can he yearn to be part of the Big Boys Club (and a couple of women too), the Trump-Putin-Merkel-May-Shinzo Abe combine may say to him, if India is going to get routinely buoyed down by its own fractious neighbours? How can India claim to be the country that will stare down China, that aspiring World Number One power, if Modi ji can’t find a way to manage China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan?

Fourth, with his phone call to Imran, the PM is saying that all bets are back on. And, that he is even willing to come to Islamabad for the SAARC summit that should be held before the year is out.

Imagine the photo-op, of Modi standing next to Imran. If that’s not the diplomatic equivalent of steroids with a cherry on top, then I don’t know what is.

That, of course, is a huge carrot. If India doesn’t go to the SAARC summit, it will be postponed yet again, for the second year. The rules are that the summit cannot be held even if one country opts out for one reason or another.

Imagine the photo-op, of Modi standing next to Imran. If that’s not the diplomatic equivalent of steroids with a cherry on top, then I don’t know what is.

The morning after the phone call though, it’s important to take a deep breath. It’s clear that Modi’s call has been made with the full understanding that Imran had the huge support of the “miltestablishment”, as the military and intelligence agencies are fondly called in Pakistan, to win his election, but there’s more.

Imran couldn’t have done as well as he did if he didn’t have a real popularity surge. Fact is that he has done incredibly well in Punjab province as well, winning only a few seats less than Nawaz Sharif-Shehbaz Sharif’s PML-N.

It may be true that Shehbaz, who was supposed to have carried on the big fight with his brother and niece in jail, has capitulated completely in front of the army. The PML-N is leaderless today, and it shows.

The Modi government has decided that Imran is the man of the hour. In the coming weeks and months, new initiatives are likely – perhaps, some visas and reopening of trade. Since the army must get on board for any India-related policy, they will have to give in if Imran pushes them.

The big question, as always, is and will be Kashmir. How are Modi and Imran expected to deal with this 71-year-old conundrum?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, it’s important to celebrate Modi’s bid for peace in the subcontinent. The time to worry will come. Today belongs to the man who lives on Lok Kalyan Marg, in the heart of Delhi.