Ajmer lunch: New Delhi must remain engaged

Published on Jun 18 2022

Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf visited the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer on March 9. Though the visit was marked by protests by some local groups, he was received with the traditional courtesies that have remained unchanged since the era of Emperor Akbar. It is understood that the visiting dignitary prayed for world peace, progress of Pakistan and the well-being of his family.


This is unexceptionable. and it may be recalled that whether General Musharraf or President Asif Ali Zardari – they have all visited Ajmer and paid similar homage to the ‘garib nawaz’ as the Chishti is affectionately referred to. It is an article of unflinching faith in the subcontinent that whether it is the deity at Vaishnodevi or Ajmer – the true believer responds to a ‘bulaava’ – the call from the shrine -- and that such visits are pre-ordained.


While this personal dimension of pilgrimage is reflective of certain unchanging rhythms associated with South Asia, there was a political dimension that has evoked considerable comment in India. Prior to the Ajmer shrine visit, Prime Minister Ashraf and his entourage were hosted at lunch by the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and while this was described as more of a courtesy extended to a visiting Prime Minister of an important neighbouring nation, the context and the sub-text have been the subject of dissent, dismay and sharp comment in India.


Delhi has been seeking a satisfactory response from Pakistan on a range of terrorism-related events for over a decade and these go back to the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the carnage in Mumbai in November 2008 and now the most recent LoC  violations and beheading of Indian soldiers. Against this backdrop any kind of official engagement with Pakistan evokes anger in India and the political leadership is aware of this predictable sentiment.


Thus Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured Parliament on March 8 – just a day before the Ajmer lunch hosted  by Foreign Minister Khurshid – that unless Pakistan addressed the “terror machine” and severed links with it, the Indo-Pak bilateral relationship could not be business as usual. This formulation, it may be recalled, is similar to the January 2004 composite dialogue agreement arrived at between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and General Musharraf.


However, the critics of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) Pakistan policy have slammed the government for what is being described as its confused posture and also for misleading the country. To be fair to the government, the official position is that the Ajmer lunch while hosted by the foreign minister did not address any of the issues that have been placed on the official agenda – for example, terrorism – and hence there was no dilution of the Indian position on Pakistan and terrorism.


As an analyst, one has argued that notwithstanding extremely provocative behaviour and related responses by the deep-state in Pakistan – the military apex and the right-wing extremist groups – Delhi must remain engaged with the civilian government in Islamabad. As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Vajpayee realised, any impulsive snapping of ties with Pakistan is counter-productive to India’s long-term objectives. Thus the composite dialogue later became the “resumed” dialogue and the progress has been sluggish.


Pakistan’s own civilian regime has gone through a series of convulsions and Ashraf replaced his predecessor Prime Minister Gilani in June 2012 under very strained and turbulent circumstances. Many Pakistan watchers averred that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government would not complete its term and that the familiar pattern of the army stepping in to “save” the country would be soon repeated.


In a remarkable show of resilience, President Zardari has been able to juggle his cabinet members and ensure that the continuity of the civilian government remained unbroken. Thus next week – in mid March –  it will be a historic first time that a civilian government in Pakistan will complete its full term without rude interruption from  GHQ Rawalpindi. While modest, this may be qualified as a significant event within Pakistan – and for the bilateral relationship.


To that extent, a personal meeting by an Indian cabinet minister with a visiting Pakistani prime minister at this point in time is a reasonably valid initiative and I would argue that strengthening the civilian political dynamic is in India’s interest. Getting the Pakistani military back to the barracks and ensuring the appropriate degree of civilian control over the military is best left to the people of Pakistan and Rawalpindi’s principal benefactors – the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia – to decide.


However, where the UPA government could have done better is in communicating its intent to its political opponents, the media and the country at large. The democratic ethos of India is inherently argumentative and dissent is the bedrock of debate. Such contested deliberations can be objective and constructive or bitter and zero-sum. Regrettably the latter has been the leitmotif right from the NDA government through UPA I and now UPA II.


It may be recalled that the 1998 nuclear tests when the NDA was at the helm were bitterly opposed by the Congress and the Left parties. Subsequently, the 2005 Manmohan Singh-Bush initiative to radically alter the India-U.S. relationship was trashed by the BJP and the Left parties. In the bargain the long-term Indian national interest was eroded.


Strategic communication of the government’s intent is imperative and this has been a big gap in the UPA’s track record. In its last year, UPA II would be well advised to make some concerted effort in the foreign policy area and Prime Minister Singh should consider addressing the nation periodically, perhaps through radio – a hugely effective but totally ignored medium. The energetic new information and broadcasting minister, Manish Tewari, may like to refer to the Nehru-Radhakrishnan years when radio was used to enrich the democratic discourse. Given his unease with the camera, Dr. Singh may prefer radio as an option.


The alternative is a sullen Indian public, which remains confused and cross -- as the Ajmer lunch suggests.


(Uday Bhaskar is a strategic analyst. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com)