While India alleged that it only now saw Imran Khan’s “real face”, he retorted with the barb that “small men occupying big offices” lacked vision.
Imran Khan became Prime Minister of Pakistan with the slogan of “Naya Pakistan”, or New Pakistan. In India, his victory was seen as enabled by the blessings of the Pakistan Army. Only the naïve believed that there would be anything “naya” about his India policy in the short run. But the Narendra Modi government inexplicably gambled otherwise, leading to another flip-flop and a regression in relations. While India alleged that it only now saw Imran Khan’s “real face”, he retorted with the barb that “small men occupying big offices” lacked vision.
What has led to this new impasse? With Central rule imposed on Jammu and Kashmir, Mr Satyapal Malik appointed as the new governor, and an apparent free run given to the security forces; and the National Conference and the Peoples’ Democratic Party boycotting in advance the planned local elections, the environment was hardly propitious for an India-Pakistan engagement. In September, when the UN General Assembly convenes for its annual high-level segment, Pakistan invariably ratchets up tension across the Line of Control by ceasefire violations, atrocities against the Indian security forces or by encouraging militancy and infiltration. Thus the announcement by the external affairs ministry spokesman on September 20 — that the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, representing their nations this year in lieu of the Prime Ministers, would meet on the sidelines of the UNGA – was surprising. Some, including this columnist, welcomed the move as the “zero tolerance” of terror policy was unrealistic and cornered India into perennial hostility. Even the United States has not been able to wean Pakistan away from a similar demand by them on Pakistan’s western (Afghanistan) front. India should definitely react when a terror attack is of the magnitude and planning that betrays the Pakistani agencies’ hand. But attacks by lone wolves cannot be allowed to scupper bilateral relations, as otherwise each and every single jihadi gets a veto on India-Pakistan relations.
The decision to meet was taken on receipt of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s reply to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message, in which the former accepted the Indian suggestion for “constructive engagement” and proposed the ministerial meeting. The letter, dated September 14, should normally have reached Mr Modi the same day or the following day. Which means the Indian government mulled over it for a few days before announcing its acceptance on September 20. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa was in Beijing on a three-day visit that ended on September 19. He would no doubt have been kept informed by the Imran Khan government. In China, he got a reception befitting a high political emissary, including a call on President Xi Jinping. Mutual vows of perennial alliance were exchanged as Gen. Bajwa allayed Chinese fears that the Imran Khan government, like the new Malaysian government headed by Mahathir Mohamed, may restrict the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Gen. Bajwa had earlier shrewdly collared Punjab minister Navtej Singh Sidhu, visiting Pakistan as a special invitee of PM-elect Imran Khan, and resurrected the corridor to Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak had stayed and proselytised for the last two decades of his earthly journey. On the right bank of the river Ravi, Kartarpur is near the international border and on a clear day the Gurdwara Sahib is visible from India. Why Sir Cyril Radcliffe left it in Pakistan, when in that region the border follows the river, escapes explanation as for Sikhs its significance equals if not exceeds other Sikh takhts. Gen. Bajwa calculated that with Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next year, it would please Sikhs and have them lobby with New Delhi to engage Pakistan. But Delhi’s red lines seek Pakistani action first against past terror perpetrators and implementation of President Pervez Musharraf’s 2004 public commitment on preventing the use of Pakistani territory for aiding and abetting terror. The Indian agencies had already been alleging an ISI hand in supporting #Referendum 2020, an Internet-based vote on “Khalistan”.
Thus, while Imran Khan extended the hand of friendship, the Pakistan Army set forth to undermine the “zero toerance” terror doctrine of the Modi government. The killing of kidnapped soldiers and policemen by terrorists had been episodically occurring in the Kashmir Valley. The BSF, completely unmindful of these disparate but interrelated events, dispatched a party beyond the international border fencing, but in Indian territory, to cut elephant grass which obstructs its line of sight. Was the BSF alerted by the Intelligence Bureau or R&AW about the Pakistan Army’s proclivity to undermine peace efforts or simply put pressure on India before it sat down for what South Block called a chat, and not resumption of dialogue? Did national security adviser Ajit Doval convene a meeting to assess likely rogue actions by the Pakistan Army as India prepared to re-engage Pakistan? These are questions which in mature democracies the Opposition and the media get the government to answer.
The Indian pirouette and rude remarks about Imran Khan were due to, as the MEA spokesman dourly argued, that morning’s kidnapping and killing of policemen in the Valley and stamps issued to commemorate militants, including Burhan Wani. The killings were not a new development. BSF head constable Narender Singh had already been killed and his body mutilated on September 18, and the stamps had been issued before Imran Khan took over. The unseemly flip-flop seemed more engendered by the social media and political uproar amongst Modi bhakts, core jingoistic supporters and even ordinary Indians looking for a reasoned explanation.
Consequently, hasty decision-making and reliance on a small coterie of doting adviers have ensured that Imran Khan, a possible factor of goodwill and change, has been alienated. Wagons were quickly circled to ensure that the blame, if any, is passed to South Block and did not linger at the PM’s doorstep. But the world and the UN will be the losers as the two countries’ ministers now prepare for a public spectacle in New York, of vituperative and ugly mutual finger-pointing.