.Islamabad and New Delhi
By Arif Nizami
Bishkek the capital of Kirgizstan perhaps was another opportunity lost for initiating a thaw between the two adversarial neighbours of South Asia. Islamabad on more than one occasion had shown its keenness for an informal meeting between prime minister Imran Khan and his freshly re-elected Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. But apart from exchanging pleasantries not even a “pull aside” could take place.
Brushing aside this deliberate snub by New Delhi, foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi putting up a brave face said that Pakistan albeit keen, was not in too much of a hurry for such a meeting. SMQ is perhaps right. But what other option does Islamabad have when New Delhi is simply unwilling for a dialogue at this stage?
Prime minister Imran Khan is making the same mistake like his predecessor Nawaz Sharif in dealing with Modi. It must be realised that personal bonhomie in the absence of real change of heart on both sides of the divide will not automatically result in improved relations.
The Indian prime minister in a recent interview claimed that he made concerted efforts to improve relations with Pakistan while Nawaz Sharif was prime minister. He invited him to his oath taking ceremony in May 2014.
The next year in December, he asserted in the interview that he made an impromptu visit to Lahore on his way back to Kabul to meet Sharif on his invitation on the sidelines of the latter’s granddaughter’s wedding. However, he lamented that his initiative came to naught.
The rest of the world should see both nuclear-armed powers as behaving more maturely
Soon after- barely a week after Modi meeting Sharif in Lahore-there was a daring attack on Pathankot air force base. As usual, New Delhi immediately blamed ‘Pakistan based terrorists’ for the audacious attack. The respected Indian daily ‘the Hindu’ wrote that it was a reality check for Modi for his outreach to the Pakistani prime minister on Christmas day.
Of course, the milt-establishment of the time was not too happy with Sharif’s out of the blue meeting in Lahore. Hence the naara (slogan) –Modi ka jo yaar hai ghaddar hai ghaddar hai (Modi’s friend is a traitor) -gained much traction. At that time Khan in the opposition buttressed by armchair retired military personnel on the electronic media took this propaganda to a crescendo.
This was the second time Sharif’s quixotic effort to reach out to India proved to be his nemesis. First was when the then Army Chief general Musharraf sabotaged his own prime minister’s initiative by starting the disastrous Kargil misadventure.
Things have now taken a full circle. With Imran Khan as prime minister the shoe is on the other foot and the military leadership that replaced general Raheel Sharif, despite considering India an existential threat realises number one priority should be given to fixing the ailing economy.
Despite Islamabad’s genuine desire for peace, Modi is simply not playing ball. At the outset, he invited all neighbours except the Pakistani prime minister to his oath taking ceremony late last month. This was an obvious snub to Pakistan and quite contrary to Modi’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
In fact, it is neighbourhood first sans Pakistan policy. The newly elected Indian prime minister first made a dash to the Maldives offering the island Islamic republic generous economic assistance.
Modi’s next visit was to Sri Lanka with whom India has a history of somewhat thorny relations. He made it a point to visit the St Anthony’s church, one of the three Christian worship places that were attacked by terrorists on Easter Sunday in April resulting in death of 258 people including 45 foreign nationals.
Modi while addressing the Bishkek summit very cleverly tried to link Pakistan to the dastardly terrorist attack. Without naming Islamabad he said that, “there was need to hold those countries that support terrorism accountable”.
India has good relations with both Iran and Afghanistan. New Delhi actively involved in construction of Chabahar port and its close economic defence and intelligence sharing ties with Kabul has obvious strategic implications for Pakistan.
Perhaps with the sole exception of China with which it already has close ties, Pakistan needs to improve its relations with all its neighbours. Modi since his re-election has embarked upon a charm offensive to isolate Islamabad in the region.
That is why the PTI government’s concerted efforts are not bearing fruit. Perhaps it should adopt a wait and see policy. But at the same time measures should be taken to lower tensions between the two belligerent nuclear armed powers.
The controversy over giving special overflying rights to Modi’s special flight was totally unnecessary. First Islamabad dragged its feet on the issue. But once the flight route was cleared Modi to appease the anti-Pakistan vote that got him re-elected simply balked and preferred to take the longer route.
Pakistan closed its air space for India post-Pulwama air strike on Balakot last February. Since then Indian commercial flights have to take a circuitous route to avoid using Pakistani air space. Perhaps it is time for both Islamabad and New Delhi to de-escalate tensions.
India imposed excessive duties on Pakistani imports just to punish its adversarial neighbour. As a result, Pakistani goods in the pipeline are still rotting on the land border between the two countries.
Recently new Delhi’s intelligence sleuths and police harassed guests invited to attend the iftar party hosted by the Pakistani high commissioner. Reciprocally Pakistani agencies did the same by preventing guests to attend the Indian high commissioner’s iftar at Serena hotel in Islamabad.
Such infantile behaviour on both sides of the divide should be discouraged. The rest of the world should see both the nuclear-armed powers as behaving more maturely.
In the meanwhile, ahead of the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s impending visit to India, Washington is ramping up pressure on Islamabad. During a special hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells linked the proposed IMF bailout package for Pakistan to Islamabad following through, “sustained and irreversible action against all militant groups operating within its territory.”
The long-standing strategic nexus between Washington and New Delhi is stating but the obvious. It is however up to Islamabad to wake up and smell the coffee.
Perhaps both Islamabad and New Delhi should give back channel diplomacy another chance? But admittedly it takes two to tango