On Monday, India will log the 10th anniversary of a very painful piece of its recent history: An unprecedented attack on Mumbai by Pakistani terrorists, which left behind 166 martyrs. It is akin to a similarly audacious terror strike seven years earlier on New York City on 11 September, when a suicide squad owing allegiance to the terrorist outfit Al-Qaeda flew two passenger aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Significantly, on the eve of the anniversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government cleared a road project that will cut across the India-Pakistan border and connect Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district of Punjab to the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur—providing a passage to the faithful through enemy territory to the holy site located in Pakistan; revered by the Sikhs because Guru Nanak had died there in 1539. This was no coincidence.

A day later Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a gathering of Sikh devotees publicly backed the project in a quote crafted in real politik, suggesting that faith may have opened yet another door for peace between the two countries. “Kisne socha that ki Berlin ki deewar gir sakti hai. Shayad Guru Nanak Dev Ji ke aashirwad se, Kartarpur ka corridor sirf corridor nahi, jan jan ko jodne ka bahut bada karan ban sakta hai (Who thought that the Berlin wall would fall? With the blessings of Guru Nanak the Kartarpur corridor can become a reason to connect people of the two countries with each other)."

The big question is whether this is yet another bold diplomatic gamble by PM Modi to break the ice with Pakistan. Particularly since it comes on the eve of the anniversary of 26/11, a painful reminder of the terror factory located across the border, just ahead of a key general election and in the backdrop of a rebuff by the Pakistani army to his out-of-the-box idea to take a detour to Lahore on Christmas Day in 2015 to call on his then counterpart Nawaz Sharif.

Significantly, the political messaging from the Indian side is being echoed from across the border; at least by the new political leadership in Pakistan under the aegis of former cricketer Imran Khan. Soon after the NDA government cleared the project, Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted: “Indian Cabinet endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition on #KartarPurBorderOpening is victory of peace lobby in both countries, its a step towards right direction and we hope such steps encourage voice of reasons and tranquility on both sides of the border."

While peaceniks on either side have cause for hope, it is also a fact that India has been at the very same crossroads on several occasions. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had journeyed by road in a historic trip to Lahore via the Wagah border in search of peace; something to which the Pakistani Army responded by unleashing through its terror proxies the assault in Kargil and later an attack on the Indian Parliament.

And then when Modi took charge of the Union government in 2014, in an unprecedented move, he chose to invite the heads of neighbouring countries to be part of the inaugural. It was a clear signal that the PM, despite the previous setbacks and the reluctance of the Pakistan Army to see reason, was willing to stake his hard-earned social capital for striking a lasting truce with a testy neighbour—who is now at the risk of becoming an international pariah. And we all know how things turned out after that; in fact today the formal relations between the two countries are at a new low.

The proverbial ball, as they say, is in Pakistan’s court. Pushed into a corner by unprecedented belligerence from the White House under President Donald Trump, the options before Pakistan are rapidly shrinking. The rapidly changing scenario in West Asia is only complicating things further. The odds suggest that our troubled neighbour needs to grab the life line thrown to it; but history and experience tell us otherwise.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

Close