It was Navjot Singh Sidhu’s presence at the Pakistani ceremony which really became contentious.
Through the last 40 years or more, driving positivity into India-Pakistan relations has been a harrowing task. Far too many imponderables, both from the external and internal dimensions, combine to prevent any traction towards lasting peace. That is why small steps which could be taken to the next level incrementally never get realised. In the midst of such an environment, the Kartarpur Corridor initiative is actually a pleasant surprise; whose initiative it was should always have been irrelevant. Pakistan having painted itself into a corner on the economic front and international perception about its seriousness to overcome support to trans-national terror as a strategic weapon is the one which has far greater stakes in normalising relations. India, as a longtime sufferer of trans-national terror, would be happier to see removal of potential triggers which keep it on tenterhooks with public demand to be more proactive in response. Such an initiative needs to be initially seen as something non-political and handled as such, combining it with further small steps to progressively build the political stakes for peace. Reading too much in a single small non-political step is the surest way of preventing a process from being built.
The problem with the Kartarpur Corridor initiative has been that no one has allowed it to remain where it should have remained, just a good people-to-people non-political contact. The Pakistani leadership jumped too early into it without being mindful of the fact that it was unnecessarily riling its Indian counterpart, which was giving peace a chance much against the existing political environment. Pakistan claiming credit for this should have very quietly done by its projections to those who mattered. With its well-known ability to spin and play the information game, silence was the far greater weapon, and positives emerging from the Indian media would have contributed to that strategy to achieve a better name. Both the Pakistan Army and the political leadership felt excited by the fact that despite all the warnings of potentially no traction in Indian-Pakistan relations till well after India’s general election in April-May 2019, they had managed to “pressure” the Indian leadership to accept the initiative.
The temptation to showcase this was far too great. What the Indian side did, in terms of the ceremony on November 27, 2018, apart from the highly inexplicable choice of the date, was actually the display of the right balance. The vice-president was the best choice for the inauguration, accompanied by the Punjab chief minister, with presence of junior ministers and relevant legislators. In many ways Punjab jails minister S.S. Randhawa’s rather strong response to the alleged politicisation of the event went far in ensuring that the Indian ceremony was seen as nothing but cultural-religious. It should have sent an appropriate message across the border, which Pakistan should have been smart enough to replicate to keep the initiative in the cultural-religious domain. The Indian government’s deputing of two ministers from the Sikh faith to attend the Lahore ceremony was again the right gesture. But the person who really got it all correct was the Punjab chief minister, Capt. Amarinder Singh. On a personal level, his keeping away from the Pakistani ceremony despite the invitation to attend it sent the appropriate message. His attendance so soon after the terrorist grenade attack near Amritsar, allegedly sponsored by the Deep State in Pakistan, would have sent some very negative signals within India. His absence conveyed that while the Sikh community appreciated the Kartarpur Sahib initiative, the government was also aware that Pakistan was looking at opportunities to use this against India and against Sikhs in particular through the psychological targeting of pilgrims.
It was Navjot Singh Sidhu’s presence at the Pakistani ceremony which really became contentious. On the face of it there was nothing wrong with Mr Sidhu’s attendance at the invitation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a way he was making up for the absence of the Punjab CM and could have actually ensured such a balance that none could have faulted him; in fact he would have walked away with all the accolades. He should have coordinated with the two Indian ministers for them to briefly speak as per protocol and then perhaps taken the stage to thank the Pakistan leadership on behalf of the Sikh community and resolving to keep the initiative apolitical. Knowing fully well what the outcome was of his last visit to Pakistan during the inauguration ceremony of Imran Khan’s government, lessons should have been learnt from that. Mr Sidhu is such an outstanding communicator and crowd-puller that little does he realise how much he can do for the nation in such circumstances, if he has the right advisers. Every time he steps across the border to Pakistan or lands at a Pakistani airport, he should consider it a strategic mission to facilitate better relations without being hijacked by different agendas.
Unlike the Indian ceremony, the Pakistani ceremony was far more high profile with a large presence of the Indian media at a Pakistani event after a long time. Yet the optics, the choice of words and the sequencing was all wrong. Imran Khan could not help speaking in a sermonising way. He should know that Indian sensitivities are all about the hundreds of Indian lives lost due to Pakistan’s proxy war. If he is doing some serious talking, he should also know that despite persistent demands in India for responding in kind through clandestine operations this option has never been adopted, although nothing stops India from doing so. However, through a subtle propaganda and denial strategy, the Deep State appears to have convinced the Pakistani public and the civilian leadership about India’s sponsorship of terror within, to try and gain a moral edge over India.
If the Kartarpur Corridor initiative flounders it will be because of the inability to treat it with nimble fingers as just a cultural-religious measure to deliver the aspirations of a faith. I do not foresee any further ceremonies before the Indian general election. If it is inaugurated on the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev or before, both sides must be mindful of what the ceremony must involve and what is to be spoken there. Otherwise, another spate of exchange of barbs will only contribute to a potential failure and a huge tragedy for the Sikh community and indeed for India.