He came, he saw, he ‘conquered’. That is the take of hardline ‘patriots’ and a large section of our media on Foreign Minister (FM) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to Goa for the SCO conference on May 4-5, 2023. He came, was roundly countered and ‘shown the mirror (if not door)’ is how the Indian media and commentators portrayed the visit. Carping on either side continues.
Nothing in this is unexpected or strays even a smidgeon from the script. It is a reflection of the strained relations between Pakistan and India that so much breath and space was accorded to the optics of handshakes, namastes, and body language rather than the substance of the issues dividing the two South Asian neighbours and ways and means to overcome them.
Can any reasonable person, and not one entangled in the cobwebs of our respective states’ narratives, deny the irrefutable logic of peace and normalisation between Pakistan and India, trapped by a mutual history full of pain, tragedy, loss of human life on an unprecedented scale and visceral hatreds that show no signs of abating even after three quarters of a century?
While the logic is irrefutable, particularly since both countries are declared nuclear weapons powers since 1998, getting to the desired goal is inherently difficult and the path to it constantly derailed by the actions (or inaction) of either party.
The closest both countries came to a rapprochement was in the 1999-2001 period, punctuated by the ‘stab in the back’ (as then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee characterised it) of the Kargil war, and the subsequent attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.
Musharraf, the saboteur of Vajpayee’s historic visit to Pakistan in 1999, not the least through the secretive launch of the Kargil war, who then overthrew then Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif in a military coup, felt compelled when in power to sue for peace and a compromise solution on the vexed Kashmir issue. Since the failure at the Agra summit in 2001, things have gone from bad to worse.
The even worse turning point was the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, in which scores of innocent Indian lives were lost. Things went frostier and frostier between the two countries from that point on, and despite the ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC) of 2021, the present state of relations is reflected in the fact that neither country currently has a High Commissioner in the other, trade is at a standstill, and no direct travel links can be availed of by the citizens of either country wishing to visit the other (that is, those who are lucky enough to get a visa). Even the back channels that have practiced quiet diplomacy and helped official engagement in the past are defunct.
While FM Bilawal Bhutto was perfectly in his rights, and no doubt compelled by official policy and large parts of public opinion at home, to counter the terrorism charge laid by Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar on Pakistan by pointing to the Kulbushan case and unresolved Samjhauta Express killings issue, this falls into the old (and tired) Pakistan-India ‘tit-for-tat’ mode.
If Pakistan is insistent on a reversal of India’s actions of rescinding Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and thereby revoking Kashmir’s special (but interim, pending the plebiscite promised in the UN Security Council resolutions of long ago, according to Pakistan), status, India too needs to be persuaded of the change in Pakistan’s policy by pointing to the falling off if not virtual ceasing of cross-border attacks by ‘non-state’ terrorists. What would make this argument even more persuasive would be closure of the long pending cases against such worthies as Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar.
Intent has to be shown in a new way by both sides if the still hoped for engagement is to occur. Reiterating known and frequently voiced objections to each other will lead to many more Goas. Admittedly, expectations of bilateral meetings, let alone progress, at a multilateral conference like Goa proved unrealistic.
Nevertheless, Pakistan took the right decision to attend so as to avoid isolation. Unfortunately, just as in the Agra summit 2001, the Indian media cannot get over its preconceived notions about Pakistan, thereby negating the facts of the dynamic of change. Not that the Pakistani media is much better. Both are trapped within the confines of the prevailing narrative.
The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is another victim of visceral hatred, this time of the country’s coalition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government.
First their social media warriors condemned Bilawal’s visit as the carryover of former COAS General Bajwa’s alleged ‘appeasement of India’ plan, only to feel compelled later to defend FM Bilawal Bhutto Zardari against the attacks on him by Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar (some, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, after Bilawal had left).
The PTI is trapped in its visceral hatred of its political rivals to the extent of jettisoning without thought even the interests of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Although engagement between the two countries is necessary and inescapable, given the dangers inherent in tensions between them, fresh thinking and approaches will be required. Instead of harping on past ‘transgressions’
by either side, both must incrementally switch to the language of peace and normalisation, inherent in which is a return to the negotiating table with a clear mind that the main bone of contention, the Kashmir issue, requires flexibility and compromise by both sides, since neither can change the ground realities under the shadow of the nuclear mushroom cloud.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023