NEW DELHI: The grandstanding by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his oath taking ceremony in respect to better relations with neighbours has fallen flat within three months of his government coming to power. Amidst the chest thumping by television anchors and select guests there seems to be no rational explanation for the sudden decision by the central government to cancel the foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan, in ostensible response to a meeting that has been legitimised by successive Indian governments over the last 15 years.

A Hindu Sena group demonstrated outside the Pakistan high commission following reports of the scheduled meeting between the High Commissioner Abdul Basit and Kashmiri separatist leaders. Some television channels stepped up the hype and suddenly, after a high level meeting, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh telephoned Basit with a “it is either us or them” ultimatum. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson issued a statement saying, "The invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan's High Commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan's sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India's internal affairs continue unabated.” The Foreign Office described this as part of "Pakistan's continued efforts to interfere in [its] internal affairs.”

New Delhi has always found these meetings to be somewhat of an irritant, although a decision was taken in back channel talks at least ten years ago that talks with the Kashmiri separatists by both India and Pakistan could be one way of addressing their sentiments. While New Delhi, except under Vajpayee and the initial years of the UPA government gave up on the dialogue, Pakistan’s leaders visiting India kept up the practise. When asked by reporters about this then foreign secretary Shyam Saran had said,” "Pakistani leaders come, they meet any Hurriyat leaders ... we are a democratic country, we have no problem with these kind of meetings."

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited by PM Modi for the oath taking ceremony, leading to great expectations and even applause for the ‘path breaking gesture.’ Within days this settled into a war of words triggered off by the Prime Minister’s remarks accusing Pakistan of a proxy war through terrorism during a visit to Ladakh, with the foreign offices of both India and Pakistan exchanging words. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley while visiting the border areas spoke of infiltration but also added that the issue would be taken up during the foreign secretary level talks beginning in Islamabad on August 25. Now these have been postponed indefinitely, thereby serving as a major setback to the peace process that the top officials were being authorised to re-initiate.

The Modi government, in a sudden turn around, has adopted a hard line with the decision to call off the talks exposing the absence of a policy on Pakistan. The invitation to Sharif stands now in sharp contrast to the cancellation of the talks, both sending out entirely different messages nationally and globally. The first brought accolades for PM Modi with the world media joining the regional and national press to applaud the gesture as an act of peace. The second has been received with dismay across the globe, in Jammu and Kashmir, and amongst the substantially large constituencies supporting peace in both India and Pakistan.

The government seems to have come under pressure from its own hardline constituency, with the RSS now having a major and directly visibly say in the BJP through the appointment of its functionaries as party office bearers. Also the continuous carping by the Congress party accusing the BJP for continuing with the dialogue while accusing the Manmohan Singh government of caving in to Pakistan seems to have had an impact. Kashmiri leaders like Mehbooba Mufti pointed out that the peace process has become part of a cat and mouse game between the BJP and the Congress, both preventing the other from moving ahead with dialogue while in the opposition.

The cancellation of the talks now casts a shadow over the earlier expected meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and PM Modi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next month. The government with this cancellation seems to have adopted a hard line approach from which, given the pressures defined above, it will find it difficult to move away without sufficient justification. This flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s expressed commitment to fighting poverty in the Saarc region, and has reversed the clock sufficiently to bring both countries again into a confrontationist position. Sharif will find it difficult now to move ahead as he is under a deep crisis at home with the Opposition led in this instance by Imran Khan baying for his blood. This despite having visited Delhi at Modi’s invitation, and opening himself to considerable attack at home for not meeting the Hurriyat leaders and for refraining from referring to Kashmir.

Sources said that the reason for calling off the talks will paint Pakistan into a corner. It cannot accept the Indian ultimatum, not just now but in the future as well, without serious problems at home. New Delhi too cannot now move away from this position without losing considerable face amongst the hardliners who have greeted the decision with loud applause. “Pakistan has been shown its place” is the reaction that cannot be tampered with by the Modi government now through a reversal that will be seen as ‘defeat.’ Similarly the hard line constituency in Pakistan will not tolerate any ‘dilution’ of its Kashmir stand, making it impossible for the Sharif government to accept the ‘ultimatum’ for the future as well. The dialogue between the two countries is so sensitive that it will be difficult for both to wade out of this mess without damaging their constituencies and standing at home.

The United States has been amongst the first to respond to the Indian decision. "It is unfortunate that planned talks between India and Pakistan have fallen through," US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters.

"We continue to support efforts by India and Pakistan to improve all aspects of their bilateral relations. And that is a position we will continue making clear to both parties here," she said in response to a question. Harf further said, "Irrespective of why either side says the talks were canceled, or why, in fact, they were canceled, what matters now is that both sides take steps to improve their bilateral relations. We've been very clear about that directly in conversations with both."

One of the first reactions to the move came from the Citizens of Democracy here that issued a statement saying, “This decision flies in the face of what Narendra Modi had declared in his independence speech that he wants to govern by consensus, not by majority. He also called upon the SAARC countries to join hands to fight poverty. The disproportionate military expenditure incurred by both countries i.e. India and Pakistan, as a result of continuous animosity over the issue of Kashmir is a continuous drain on the economic resources of both the countries and one of the major causes of growing poverty of their respective people. Poverty cannot be fought by flexing muscles on hollow nationalist slogans. The present government should be wise enough to know that no solution reached by India and Pakistan will work out satisfactorily unless it is acceptable to the majority of the people of Kashmir. This policy of aggressive nationalism will further increase the alienation of the people of Kashmir.”

The decision has met with an adverse reaction from Jammu and Kashmir with the mainstream political parties questioning the government’s approach. Peoples Democratic party leader Mehbooba Mufti said it was a highly negative development."Meeting between Pakistan high commissioner and Hurriyat leaders is nothing new and it is a very flimsy ground for shelving bold initiative taken by BJP government in resuming talks with Pakistan,'' she said. The National Conference also questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision pointing out that these talks have been held in the past as well.

Hurriyat leader Ali Shah Geelani said that this could have been expected and was a ‘vindication’ of his organisation’s stand. He said that India was not serious about the peace process and this had again been proved by the government.