Pakistan has in place a prime minister who from the time he sought this crucial role has made it transparently clear on numerous occasions that he would be seeking peace with India. There has been no ambiguity about his intentions, no ambivalence and the members of his government appear to be mostly similarly minded. As for the PM himself what he lacks in foreign policy formulation and in this he is a complete beginner, his obvious sincerity and commitment goes a little way to redressing the balance. It appeared at first that there was reciprocity from India and cautious optimism was on the horizon. Respective foreign ministers were slated to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The PM had written to his counterpart offering to take two steps forwards if only India would take one. And then it all fell apart within hours and the fractious status quo was restored.
By the morning of Saturday September 22, Islamabad was expressing “deep disappointment” at the cancellation of the UNGA foreign minister meeting saying that the reasons for the cancellation are “entirely unconvincing.” There appear to be two primary reasons. Firstly, the death of an Indian soldier and secondly, the recent release of 20 stamps that in the Indian view “glorified a terrorist and terrorism.” Taking the second item first the stamps that were released had been commissioned by the previous government of Pakistan, and the current government had nothing whatsoever to do with their issuance which was before the 2018 general election in July. It might have been assumed that the Indian government would at least do a little basic fact-checking before throwing its toys around the playpen. The far less fatuous matter of the death of an Indian Border Security Force soldier bears close scrutiny and an investigation is promised.
The cancellation of the meeting caught parts of the Indian media off-guard, and The Hindu carried an editorial that was openly critical of the decision, pointing out in no uncertain terms that this was just the latest in a long line of rocks being placed in the road of moves towards bilateral peace by the government of Mr Modi. When the likes of The Hindu start to take up the cudgels in respect of its own national government then something is clearly amiss.
Accompanying the notification of cancellation was something of a diplomatic rarity — what amounted to an ad-hominem attack on the Pakistan PM, using undiplomatic language which was guaranteed to make headlines which it duly did. This attempt to blacken the character of a sitting PM appears to be unprecedented in Indo-Pak relations, and marks a new low as it will taint any future attempts made by Pakistan to unstick the logjam that has been detrimental to both countries. The insults in this direction will be read as coming from the Indian PM himself, hardly a basis for a future working relationship.
The Kashmir issue remains the fulcrum of bilateral relations and it is no closer to resolution today than it was at the time of Independence. In recent years Pakistan has been the more pacific and the new government will want to make an early and positive mark. The Indian government will have noted the generally warm welcome the incoming government has had, particularly from the Americans with whom Pakistan currently has a distinctly frosty relationship. America is also in the process of reshaping its relations with India mindful of the burgeoning Chinese hegemon that is the One-Belt-One-Road project. A way has to be found to ‘park’ the Kashmir issue in order to let other work go on around it, but Modi and his government opted to strangle at birth the first steps towards bolstering a climate receptive to peace moves by the new government, in the process revealing, and we say this advisedly, its own true face.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2018.