Indo-Pak thaw: what went wrong?

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By: Imtiaz Alam

What has so abruptly reversed the Modi government’s consent to a meeting sans the resumption of the dialogue process between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA? With few exceptions, there is much more than what is being played out in the pliant and hostile media in both India and Pakistan.

This time, it seems that haste and utter lack of confidence in each other’s intentions – besides internal political fissures in India – became the immediate cause for such an ill-thought-out cancellation of an otherwise doomed-to-fail foreign ministers’ moot. The excuses for the cancellation of the foreign ministers meeting as quoted by the Ministry of External Affairs of India on September 21 – a day after its confirmation – seem to be an afterthought since the killing of a BSF soldier had taken place two days prior to the acceptance of the invitation. And the postal memorial tickets about Kashmir were issued prior to the Pakistani general elections. The tone and tenor of the Indian MEA’s response was so terrible and clumsy that a former high commissioner of India to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal, tweeted: “IFS does not …take such hasty flip flop decisions. Seems handiwork of ‘muscular’ thinking. More ‘brawn’ than ‘brain’.”

The mood in India was quite hostile, as we had seen during the visit of former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, a minister of the Congress government in Punjab, who was the personal guest of our newly elected prime minister on the latter’s oath-taking ceremony. What could not be digested by the Indian media was Sidhu’s embrace with COAS General Bajwa, and the latter’s offer to open the border for Sikh pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Indeed, this goodwill gesture by Gen Bajwa must have surprised New Delhi since successive Indian governments had been suggesting it to Pakistan for decades.

The authorities in Pakistan were, perhaps, flabbergasted by the tone of Prime Minister Modi’s call to Imran Khan, and his letter suggesting “constructive engagement” was construed as an invitation for dialogue. When Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi mentioned it in his first press conference, he was immediately rebutted for this misconception by the Indian MEA. Not knowing exactly the probable Indian response to an invitation for a ministerial meeting and the Saarc Summit, Prime Minister Khan signed quite a disjointed letter to PM Modi on September 14. The letter proposed a meeting between the two foreign ministers and also invited him to visit Islamabad on the occasion of the Saarc Summit which “will offer an opportunity for you [Modi] to visit Pakistan and for us to restart the stalled dialogue process”.

Those who closely and independently watch Indo-Pak relations could only laugh at the simplicity of PM Khan or those who had drafted a rather simplistic letter. Even in meekly accepting the invitation for the FMs’ meeting, MEA spokesman Raveesh Kumar had clearly rejected the possibility of the resumption of dialogue and a Saarc Summit in an environment of “state-sponsored terrorism”. He was in fact laughed at by reporters on his definition of a meeting-sans-dialogue, even if he noted that the killing of their soldier took place after the letter was received on September 17, and before its partial acceptance two days later.

If the invitation letter from PM Khan was sent in a hurry, without sounding out India’s actual intentions and in disregard of its long-held position regarding “terrorism and talks”, India’s tentative response for the FMs’ meet, and then its accusation-laden rejection, reflected Modi’s typical flip-flop policy towards Pakistan – as so aptly described by some of his sane liberal critics in India.

What is intriguing about the whole diplomatic fiasco is why New Delhi accepted the invitation in the first place and then went back on it – and that too so abruptly and rudely. How is it that one one day the “evil agenda of Pakistan” stood “exposed” and the “true face of [the] prime minister of Pakistan” was “revealed to the world in his few months (sic) in office”. Perhaps, given the height of bellicosity and self-congratulatory eulogy over so-called “surgical strikes”, the Modi government’s acceptance of the FMs’ meet caught it on the wrong foot while it was in the eye of a storm over a most controversial 7.4 billion euro deal for French Rafale fighter jets. The deal was brokered by Modi in his talks with the former French president, Hollande, to benefit billionaire Anil Ambani’s company, in violation of rules, over the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Coinciding with the revelation by Hollande that “we did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor [Anil Ambani] who was given to us”, Indian Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat issued an extremely provocative statement on September 22 that “it is time” that “we need to take stern action to avenge the barbarism that terrorists and the Pakistan Army have been carrying out”. The purpose seems to be to divert the Indian public’s attention from this mega-corruption scandal. Those who think that the cancellation of the FMs’ meeting was done because of state elections in India are off the mark since Modi has been contesting elections primarily on the Hindutva’s communal agenda with a broad-based appeal for growth and employment.

In the meanwhile, addressing the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) ‘Dharma Sansad’, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Sri Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat declared that “the day is not far (away) when [the] saffron flag will fly atop the Ram Mandir” that is to be built on the debris of Babri mosque. The VHP has convened a national congregation of sants next month to build the Ram temple in 2019 when the Indian elections are to be held. Ironically, the Congress Party has been critical of Modi’s occasional overtures towards Pakistan.

During such a domestic fuss in India, Prime Minister Imran Khan could have avoided his Twitter response – reminiscent of Trump’s erratic tweeting. The Pakistan Foreign Office had responded to the Indian MEA’s tirade in a measured way to keep India on the back foot; we had even offered a joint investigation into the mutilation of the body of an Indian soldier.

But we are in the habit of not being left behind in raising the antes and we don’t hesitate in matching the war of words while flaunting nuclear weapons. It is in Pakistan’s own interest not to heighten tensions with India, and to cool down the eastern front. Let India refuse to talk and let Pakistan continues to respond with talk of peace. India won’t like to offer a helping hand at a time when we remain under international scrutiny on terrorism and Afghanistan. It is inclined to respond in the “same coin” in any way and anywhere as Gen Bipin Rawat has so blatantly confessed.

Let’s wait for the opportune time. We must keep our role strictly as the human rights defenders of the Kashmiris, while promoting our own credentials in the war on terror – both at home and in the region. In my view, India-Pakistan dialogue will start when we focus on what PM Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf had agreed, as reflected in the joint statement issued on the occasion of that Saarc Summit in Islamabad in 2004. Given the volatile situation in Kashmir, why shouldn’t we try our best to ensure ceasefire on the LoC and offer to pick up the thread from where PM Manmohan Singh and Gen Musharraf had left it.

Instead of throwing each other’s respective ‘core issue’ against one another, both Pakistan and India should take more – and many – confidence-building measures and address tractable issues while thinking of out-of-the-box solutions to intractable disputes. Most importantly, the paradigms of mutually assured destruction, increasing proxy and subliminal warfare and the mindset of enmity will have to be shed by the countries if we want to live in peace and as good neighbours for the larger benefit and progress of our people.

Courtesy The News


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