Lost opportunity for normalizing Pakistan-India relations

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By Salman Bashir
India chose not to avail itself of the opportunity to abate regional tensions by eventually refusing a meeting of foreign ministers with Pakistan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Thus the hand of friendship offered by Prime Minister Imran Khan was not only spurned, but the malign official statement from the Ministry of External Affairs personally attacking Khan deliberately vitiated the atmosphere for spurious reasons.

For the past several months, diplomats on both sides had been calibrating the possibility of breaking the ice in relations. It was mutually understood that a narrow window of opportunity would arise between September and December to restart efforts to normalize, if not improve, Pakistan-India relations based on the assumption that the period preceding India’s 2019 general election could be utilized before domestic politics kicked in.

The optimistic scenario envisioned a bilateral meeting leading to the holding of a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad; several consequential bilateral and regional decisions for mutual cooperation; and the turning of a new page and speeding ahead to genuine durable stability and progress and prosperity for the peoples of South Asia. Facts and reason dictated such a course.

On the strategic plane, India could rise and shine only if its relations with all its neighbors were normalized. The region, despite its vast developmental potential, could have partaken of the phenomenon of Asia’s rise and substantially contributed to the making of an Asian century. Pakistan’s priority for economic development requires peace and normalcy in the region; and economic and trade cooperation, including connectivity between Central and South Asia, could have become a reality.

Alas, the hardliners in New Delhi succeeded in extinguishing these nascent hopes for a better future. India’s predilections in walking away have been ascribed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s entrapment by the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is bent on redefining India’s identity as a Hindu state. This Hindu Rashtra sloganeering is considered to be a vote-winner. Many astute observers were of the view that, since Pakistan figures in Indian domestic politics, Khan should not have made the conciliatory gestures prematurely.

Indeed, Muslim and Pakistan-bashing is the favorite art of Indian politicians. It is true that India defines its identity in negating Pakistan. It seems that Indian nationalism and patriotism can only be measured in terms of hate for Pakistan, be it the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Congress. But this is certainly not the case in all parts of India. This hate campaign is predominantly a northern belt product, which is not shared in southern India. It is indicative of the fissiparous tendencies within India and the fragility of the union.

So, if Modi were to get another five-year term, what scope would there be to improve relations? Next to zero, one would surmise. Herein lies India’s strategic dilemma. New Delhi has time and again proved its sheer inability to resist South Asia’s gravitational pull. The Pakistan-India strategic equation holds in all domains. India chooses to remain tied at this level. The other more reasonable course would be to come to some sort of fair and dignified accommodation with Pakistan.

India is far behind China in all domains. The Indo-US defensive alliance, ostensibly a pivot of China containment, is actually, for the Indians, a means to surpass Pakistan on the strategic plane. This is how it appears from Islamabad and is accompanied by a solid determination that such a walkover would never be allowed.

The naysayers on both sides fervently believe that Pakistan-India relations are destined to remain jinxed; vacillating between active hostility to, at best, competition, if not confrontation. The spurning by India of Pakistan’s offer of friendship is thus a colossal loss to all those who differ from the naysayers and believe in ideals and humanity. Unfortunately, electoral politics in India — the largest democracy of the world — will continue to impose serious impediments to improving subcontinental relations.

(The author Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and Ambassador to India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)