On the Rocks

Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit talks about the importance of talks

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Within months the most coveted job turned into the most difficult one of his career; worse than anything that Pakistan diplomat Abdul Basit had ever held before or envisaged. The India-Pakistan relationship was in a free-fall. And Basit had to appear to be doing something about arresting the fall when in reality all that he could do was watch from the sidelines and ensure that he didn’t get scalded.

Basit arrived in India in early 2014, succeeding his former foreign secretary Salman Bashir as Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi. It was not the best of times for India-Pakistan relations. It was not the worst of times either. After the frenetic headiness of 2004-2008 (arguably the best phase in the long history of India-Pak ties) and open hostility of 2008-2010 following the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror attack which was mounted from Pakistani soil, the relationship between the two adversarial neighbours had fallen into tolerable somnolence. There was perfunctory communication, limited bilateral engagement, honouring of old agreements and exploration of new areas of cooperation within the limitations imposed by the nature of the relationship.

Even as late as January 2014, the commerce ministers of the two countries had signed an agreement on reciprocal Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA), as the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status that Pakistan had agreed to grant to India in November 2011 now seemed a bit too much. In fact, in 2011-2014, India and Pakistan relations had acquired some degree of activity after the cooling-off period post 26/11 attacks. The two sides had signed a number of bilateral agreements, including easing of Visa regime by India and conversion of positive list of tradable goods to a negative list, allowing import of everything barring 1,200 items on that list by Pakistan.

Hence, Basit could not be faulted for arriving in India with a sense of anticipation. “Yeah,” says Basit, picking on the palak patta chaat at Taj Mahal hotel’s restaurant Warq where he invited the FORCE editors for lunch. “The mood was upbeat at that time.” When Narendra Modi led his party to unprecedented victory in the General Elections a few months later, buoyancy was added to the already upbeat mood.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held a lot of hope for people like Basit. It was believed that electoral rhetoric notwithstanding, the party with an absolute majority in Parliament would be able to take hard decisions which the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could not, despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal investment to the cause of India-Pakistan relations. Besides, nostalgia about Vajpayee and his impromptu Lahore bus ride still lingered in the air.

“We had very high expectations, given the strong majority that the BJP had won,” says Basit.

The expectations only grew when Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi decided to invite South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his swearing-in ceremony. Scotching all speculation, Sharif accepted the invitation.

Though the media on both sides of the border was unkind to Sharif after his brief meeting with Modi — while the Indian media speculated that Modi gave a dressing down to a timid Sharif, the Pakistani press criticised its prime minister for letting Modi humiliate him —, Basit insists that “the meeting was superb; the two sides agreed to resume the dialogue process.”

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