Activity sans Action?

The 'side-line diplomacy' is increasingly getting currency these days, particularly in South Asia. It's a nice exercise in escapism and yet everybody feels satisfied after discussing some sweet nothings while keeping the people guessing that something is happening at last. But the proposed meeting of foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mehmood Qureshi on sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, hopefully on September 27, was finally cancelled following the 'nation-wide outrage' over the brutal killings of Indian security personnel by Pakistani rangers. Ironically, cancellation of the informal meet came within 24 hours of India announcing that it has accepted the Pakistan PM's request to PM Modi in a letter for such a meeting. The proposal of the meeting, rather officially sponsored unofficial parley, came from Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan. The Swaraj-Qureshi dialogue would have been the first encounter at this level since January 2016, when New Delhi stopped discussion with Islamabad in the aftermath of Uri sector attack in which 18 Indian soldiers were killed. India's all previous goodwill missions vanished in the thin air and New Delhi pulled out of the SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016. And the summit was finally called off as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan declined to participate in the meeting, giving credence to India's repeated allegation that 'terror and talks cannot go together'.

With every civilian change in Pakistan, people on both sides of the fence begin to think the unthinkable that bilateral ties between India and Pakistan will improve. But after some time people resign to their fate only to witness escalation in cross-border violence and loss of human lives and properties. And the blame game continues.

Maybe, it is the third time when Imran Khan mooted the idea of a formal engagement process with India after winning the elections. Mr Khan seems to have sincerely responded to Modi's letter to him on August 18, reciprocating his sentiments. The same thing happened when Nawaj Sharif became prime minister. And informal diplomacy reached its peack when Modi went without being invited, to attend a wedding party at Sharif's house in Islamabad. Then everything changed for the worse and the possibility of thaw in bilateral relations disappeared following the terror attack on the Indian military camp. In the said letter Modi emphasised the need to make 'South Asia terror free'. Well, there is no harm in deriving comfort from utopia but utopia doesn't reflect the ground reality. Imran Khan's desire to 'peacefully resolve all outstanding issues, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute to bridge differences and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome', was well appreciated by the concerned South Asians. His predecessors too time and again echoed peace rhetorics, only to be sidelined in due season by the all powerful military of Pakistan. It is widely believed in political circles in Pakistan as also in India that Mr Khan was propped up by the Pakistan Army. Having faced with the prospects of isolation in some quarters in the West and America, it is quite possible that the army in Pakistan won't dislike to give Mr Khan some space so that Islamabad could regain some lost ground in international arena. Whether, they admit it or not, Mr Khan's efforts to resume dialogue with India at this juncture has international dimensions as well. For one thing Imran Khan's foreign minister Qureshi is a known pro-army man. His federal cabinet of 21 members has 12 who previously served under General Pervez Musharaf, while five were part of the last PPP government. In other words he will have to depend on old guards who have been shaping Pakistan's domestic and foreign policies for so long.

Imran Khan is likely to convene the postponed SAARC summit as early as possible and it cannot be done without India's participation. Then there is the question of how to appease the Uncle Sam without jeopardising Chinese friendship. Pakistan's ambition to play a leading role in the Afghan theatre has been dashed despite its covert support to some terror outfits that are hostile to the Kabul regime and its sponsor—America. The tight-rope walking that Pakistan has been doing for so long in respect of Afghanistan vis-a-vis US geo-politics is not workable any more. Washington now wants its pound of flesh, they want Pakistan to fall in line and act as America's proxy to eliminate terroristic organisations, more precisely the Taliban and Haqqani network, that refuse to kowtow to America. What is more worri-some for some western observers is how Pakistan is slowly but steadily getting integrated into China's sphere of influence. To facilitate China's Belt and Road Initiative—the carefully crafted Chinese hegemon in the region—Islamabad has rechristened Baltistan, part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, as its integral province which India doesn't apporve the way China doesn't approve India's sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh. Even if they succeed in making some progress in the side-line dialogue, 'Baltistan' will now give a new twist to the Kashmir imbroglio.

Not that all sections of Pakistanis are in favour of surrendering economic sovereignty over to China. They apprehend Pakistan may go the Sri Lankan way to become a semi-colony of China. Sri Lanka's former president Mahindra Rajapaksa negotiatied with China Harbour Engineering Company, one of Beijing's largest state-owned enterprises, over the construction of Hambantota Port and China readily advanced huge loans to have strategic foothold in the Indian ocean. With porspects of sanctions at UN for its brutal suppression of Tamil insurgency and war crimes, politically too Sri Lanka depended heavily on China for veto at the UN Security Council. Having failed to repay Chinese loan that was utilised to build the Hambantota port, Sri Lanka finally handed over Hambantota port and 15000 acres of prime land around it for 90 years in December 2017.

If anything China doesn't have any different business policy when they invest in Pakistan to propel their Belt and Road Initiative. Too much dependence on China may back-fire some day. Pakistan lives at many levels these days while handling too many antagonistic contradictions, not to the mutual satisfaction of all stake-holders.

Coming back to India-Pakistan dialogue on 'the side-lines of UNGA', Kashmir remains the core issue and unless both sides accept the line of control as permanent border, with slight adjustment here and there, no amount of political jugglery will be enough to break the jinx. Given the bitter legacy left by history, sub-continentals cannot avoid a perennial 'no war, no peace' situation, unless they consciously reconcile themselves with the divided reality.


Vol. 51, No.13, Sep 30 - Oct 6, 2018