Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absence was understandable as he faces crucial state and then parliamentary elections.
At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spoke on Saturday, September 29 — Ms Swaraj first and Mr Qureshi later in the afternoon. They had shared concerns about threats to multilateralism, climate change, and a weakened United Nations, etc, but on bilateral relations, terrorism, questions related to Saarc and Kashmir, a wide chasm separated them.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absence was understandable as he faces crucial state and then parliamentary elections. New Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s absence was interpreted as signalling that his focus remained on vital domestic issues. A Pakistani source, in confidence, attributed it to his wife and spiritual adviser Begum Bushra forbidding travel across the oceans. The danger, if any, lurks on the South Asian subcontinent, as the BJP leadership ratchets up jingoism in the face of jobless growth and spiralling oil prices. After leaders exchanged rather civil, if not warm, communications, India abruptly cancelled the New York meeting of the foreign ministers, and Mr Qureshi described the third-time cancellation of the bilateral talks as being on “flimsy grounds”.
Ms Swaraj’s address combined issues of multilateral significance like sustainable development and climate change with the global menace of terrorism. The last provided an opening to berate Pakistan’s role in abetting terror against India. Terrorism, she said, bred next door to us and not in some faraway land. Mr Qureshi also addressed the first two issues, but saw terrorism differently. Pakistan was a victim of terror, perpetrated by groups that India supports, he said, including those who killed 150 schoolchildren at Peshawar. He alleged that those responsible for the Samjhauta Express deaths of Pakistanis were being allowed to walk away. Then Kulbhushan Jadhav, wrongly dubbed a serving Indian naval officer, who is now in Pakistani custody, was presented as proof positive of Indian perfidy, when India has said that he was abducted from Iran and asked why the Indian high commission has been denied access to him. The Pakistani strategy for some time has been to seek moral equivalence with India, by first alleging that the Indian consulates in Afghanistan were hubs of anti-Pakistan terror activity and now Jadhav. President Hamid Karzai once summoned the Indian ambassador in Kabul to publicly ask how many consulates India had. A surprised Indian envoy said the Afghans knew that. Mr Karzai said he did but during his recent visit to Pakistan he was repeatedly told that the number was not four but “dozens”.
On the sudden cancellation of the New York meet, both sides had different interpretations. Ms Swaraj blamed the killing of three policemen by terrorists and the issuance of stamps by Pakistan to mark the death of Burhan Wani, a terrorist killed in the Kashmir Valley in mid-2016, which triggered popular anger, and some other victims of firing by the security forces. Mr Qureshi, referring to Wani as a “Kashmiri activist”, ignoring his social media pictures holding lethal automatic weapons, said the cancellation was due to PM Modi’s domestic compulsions. His argument had some merit as prior to the announcement a BSF jawan had been killed in a skirmish across the India-Pak border and his body mutilated, while the stamps had been issued months earlier by the interim government. The escalation of violence against easy targets by militants in the Valley had also been on an upswing for some time. The Modi government had failed to communicate to the nation effectively both why the meeting was readily accepted and then suddenly cancelled. The government does have a point, though, which the US state department’s latest country report on terror echoed last month, that in letting a UN-listed terrorist like Hafiz Saeed walk free and allowing the foundation fronts of the terrorist to raise money, Pakistan had done little to curtail India-specific terror outfits.
In an election year, some self-promotion by the Narendra Modi government was inevitable. Ms Swaraj noted that the 2015 UN summit had prescribed by 2030 tangible success in reaching 17 sustainable development goals. The Modi government’s salient schemes were listed as evidence that India was on track — despite the criticism that 140 million loans under the Mudra scheme, with 76 per cent women beneficiaries, did not create as many jobs as the scheme envisaged. Similarly, credit was claimed for granting 50 million free cooking gas connections under the Ujjwala scheme, despite the feedback that many beneficiaries had begun to revert to their traditional cooking methods as gas refills were beyond their paying ability. Ayushman Bharat, an ambitious and gargantuan health insurance scheme, the efficacy of which is still untested, was also listed. The award of UN Champions of Earth for French President Emmanuel Macron and Mr Modi was noted with obvious happiness, but ironically, in India nowadays, the two names evoke the Rafale fighter deal more than the climate change crusade.
Both nations sought reform and strengthening of the United Nations, but with divergent solutions for UN Security Council reform, as Pakistan opposes permanent membership for India. Pakistan made much of the so-called Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir and the UN human rights high commissioner’s criticism of India. Coming from a nation that brutally suppresses Baloch nationalism, that complaint lacked weight, particularly when the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative was lauded without the slightest mention of Uighurs being forcibly interned and reeducated and their Muslim identities obliterated.
US President Donald Trump set the negative tone this year by debunking what he called “globalism”. Mr Qureshi noted correctly that the world was at an inflexion point. But his solutions are wrongly India-specific. Similarly, India as a rising power cannot forever ignore engaging a neighbour, more so as a new leader like Imran Khan had emerged who could be an agent for change. India’s unwise personal attack invited Imran Khan’s retort that he had seen “small men occupying big offices”. Ms Swaraj ended her speech to the General Assembly with the invocation — “May all achieve serenity”. She could start by prescribing it in South Block first.