By Abdul Basit
Recently, an Indian national residing in New Zealand asked me on my official YouTube channel to comment on the invectives used by Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly against his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. My terse response was: “I do not approve of that.”
State interests are supreme. Personal friendship and personal acrimony start hurting state interests, both become serious issues. Visionary leaders do draw lines; they know where and how not let their language and actions affect their state interests negatively.
In Pakistan, we have seen two extremes when it comes to Prime Minister Modi. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would go out of his way to reach out to Modi because he genuinely believed that his personal rapport with Modi would help create a congenial environment for discussing all the difficult bilateral issues and settling them in the mutual interest of the two countries. Modi’s surprise stopover in Lahore to attend Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding on Dec. 25, 2015 clearly reflected how the two leaders put high premium on their evolving personal relations.
However, we did see how this personal warmth played out negatively for Pakistan in handling difficult situations stemming from the attack on India’s air force base at Pathankot on Jan. 2, 2016 and the arrest of India’s serving naval officer and working for Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, in Pakistan in March 2016.
On both these issues, Nawaz Sharif was extremely careful in his public statements lest he spoil the mutual warmth that existed between the two leaders. He also took some hasty decisions on the Pathankot issue that were neither necessary nor desirable at those points in time. He also decided not to censure India in his United Nations General Assembly speech for destabilizing Pakistan through terrorism — as confessed by Commander Jadhav.
Imran Khan, when in opposition, also tried to reach out to Modi. I was in New Delhi when he had called on Prime Minister Modi in March 2016. He even pitched for Modi’s reelection in 2019 saying that should Modi be reelected that would be better for settling bilateral issues, especially Jammu and Kashmir. He also felicitated him warmly when Modi won the election despite the Pulwama attack only two months before the vote and India’s air strikes on Balakot inside Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan never used the words like “fascist” for Modi. Nor did he ever slam the RSS for its Hindutva worldview.
But everything changed all of a sudden after Aug. 5, 2019. India’s illegal and unconstitutional decision, also in total violation of 11 UN resolutions on Kashmir, to strip “Indian Occupied Kashmir” of its special status was something that could neither be swallowed by the people of Jammu and Kashmir nor Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s language changed from one of seeking rapprochement with India to exposing India’s policies underpinned by the political philosophies of “fascism and Nazism”. And this line of argument projecting Modi as a votary of a “fascist Hindutva ideology” continues. Modi himself never responded to Imran Khan’s undiplomatic language.
Pakistan-India relations are not easy to manage. Historically speaking, they have moved from stalemate to stalemate. But whenever the bilateral relationship would hit an impasse, leaders of the two countries would usually meet on the sidelines of a multilateral meeting and break the logjam. For instance, it was the Modi-Sharif meeting in Ufa on July 10, 2015 that helped break the year-long impasse created by my meetings with the Kashmiri leadership in August 2014. Similarly, their brief encounter in Paris in November 2015 helped break another deadlock created over the controversies surrounding Pakistan’s National Security Advisor’s scheduled visit to India in August 2015 that could never take place. It was at Paris that Sharif and Modi agreed to resume the bilateral engagement and then in December 2015, the two sides reached an agreement on comprehensive bilateral dialogue.
Now the way things are between Pakistan and India, even a meeting between the two leaders on the margins of any multilateral forum looks well-nigh impossible. I have my doubts Modi would be keen to even receive a phone call from Imran Khan. The mutual bitterness at the leadership level is now too deep to allow any bilateral contact.
It goes without saying that India’s illegal and oppressive treatment of Kashmir could never be accepted by Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan is totally justified to take on India for its ongoing state terrorism against the people of Jammu and Kashmir. However, in diplomacy one must be extremely careful and leaders, in particular, must avoid personalizing inter-state relations. We can always take hard positions and can always express them but not necessarily targeting leaders and their personal predilections and derelictions even if factual. We all know where Prime Minister Modi is coming from, but there is no need for our leaders to call him names for domestic political consumption. Let that be done by the people and media of Pakistan.
Not that Indian leaders do not engage in personal invectives. But Modi has so far avoided targeting Imran Khan in abusive language. His fascist mindset, however, is a reality that cannot be ignored or taken casually as India’s jingoistic policies under Modi in Kashmir and in the region do not bode well for regional peace and stability.
(The author is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.)