Missed opportunity or ill-timing?

By Murtaza Solangi

hat was quick. A quick cool breeze turning into a scorching slap of hot wind of the desert. We had a rocky start when the routine congratulatory letter by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan calling for constructive engagement was translated as the signal for resumption of dialogue. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) wasted no time to embarrass Pakistan’s Foreign Office for its lack of capacity to understand the diplomatic language. Despite another facepalm over the contents of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s phone call with Mr. Khan, the Pakistan Foreign Office put up a brave face to ease the tension between the U.S. and Pakistan on the eve of Mr. Pompeo’s five-hour visit on September 5.

The pundits in Islamabad saw a prize for the patience. Besides the same ol’, same ol’ statements issued unilaterally from both sides, there was something special discussed on the sideline related to India and Pakistan. While the U.S. insisted on pulling the plug on India and Afghan-centric militants, Pakistan prodded the U.S. to push Delhi for positive engagement and a commitment to act positively should India accede to normalisation and finding mutually acceptable solutions to long-standing problems.

On the heels of the U.S. visit to the region, Mr. Khan sent Mr. Modi a letter, presumably to respond to his congratulatory letter but actually to bring a thaw into the frozen relationship. The letter might not be rich on style but did offer something to both countries. It offered Pakistan a face saver by mentioning Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek, while it offered India the possibility of resumption of trade and the T word. Pakistan was willing to talk about terrorism, Indians have always wanted to talk about it as they have maintained it as the main hindrance in the resumption of the comprehensive dialogue.

Back and forth

On Thursday, September 20, the MEA spokesperson acknowledged the letter from Mr. Khan, requesting a meeting of the two Foreign Ministers, Sushma Swaraj with Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and said a meeting would take place but should not be construed as the resumption of the dialogue process.

The U.S. Department of State wasted no time by welcoming the scheduled meeting in an almost condescending tone. Within 24 hours, the very next day the MEA Spokesman made a U-turn, cancelling the meeting. Had it been just the cancellation, it would have been taken lightly, but the direct accusation against Mr. Khan by naming him created a new crisis.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the party now ruling Pakistan, had in the past used very harsh language against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had contested the 2013 elections on the promise of improving relations with India. “Modi ka yaar gaddar (Modi’s friend is a traitor)” was a theme that ran for almost the entire campaign period against Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the elections this summer. The PTI had accused the PML-N of establishing personal relations with Mr. Modi and doing personal business with him instead of promoting the national interests of Pakistan. The party had hit Mr. Sharif hard for Mr. Modi’s visit to Lahore in December 2015 and had blasted his government on an Indian businessman’s visit to Pakistan in April 2017.

With the controversial elections of July 25 behind him, Mr. Khan turned the corner. His first informal acceptance speech offered the olive branch to India. “If India moves one step, we will move two,” he said.

Islamabad was rife with rumours that he wanted to invite Mr. Modi besides his friends in Bollywood and cricket friends for his oath-taking ceremony on August 18.

Somehow Mr. Khan was prevented from inviting Mr. Modi, but one of his cricket buddies, Navjot Singh Sidhu, did turn up. While his seating arrangement and the japha (bear hug) with the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, created quite a stir in India, Pakistan government circles were bullish on the offer to open the Kartarpur border crossing for Sikh pilgrims. While The New York Times even suggested that the Pakistani military had tried to reach out to the Indian side to discuss outstanding issues, a story never denied by the military, the very ambiguity created a positive atmosphere before the scheduled meeting between the top diplomats of both countries on September 27.

More fireworks

All that changed on Friday, September 21, with the cancellation of the meeting that almost insulted the Pakistan PM. While the Pakistan Foreign Office and Mr. Qureshi expressed their disappointment, they stayed within the diplomatic ambit and did not attack the Indian side. That changed when Mr. Khan on Saturday, September 22, attacked Mr. Modi without naming him and chiding him as the small man holding a big office. As if that was not enough, the statement by the Indian Army Chief threatening Pakistan and the retaliatory statement by the Pakistan Army spokesperson has made the situation more toxic than the pre-election situation. We expect more fireworks in New York City during the UN General Assembly.

Will the two men in Delhi and Islamabad find a way untangle the relations should Mr. Modi continue to rule after the upcoming elections in India is a question that hangs in the air in both countries now. Politics is the art of the possible, and thankfully both Mr. Modi and Mr. Khan are politicians.

Murtaza Solangi is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad, and is a former Director General of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation

Courtesy: The Hindu

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