New Delhi: In his 1968 book, Asian Drama, based on his experiences in the subcontinent, Swedish Nobel Laureate, Gunnar Myrdal noted that Pakistani diplomats were better gifted with conviviality and social graces than their Indian counterparts. Fifty years down the line, things seem to have turned upside down, with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan embarrassingly breaking one diplomatic protocol after another. Just a couple of weeks after the Saudi Arabia gaffe, where he spoke to the Saudi King’s interpreter and walked off before the message was even translated to the King, the cricketer-turned-politician refused to stand up at the opening ceremony of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek on Thursday. Other world leaders remained standing till all the heads of state arrived onstage.
Pakistan’s slide isn’t just ceremonial, though. The nation, “moth-eaten” since its inception, has been on the back-foot for quite some time, especially on the issue of terrorism. But now, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s astute and assertive diplomacy, which strategic expert Sushant Sareen calls “a work in progress” and “in the right direction”, Islamabad finds itself in a pariah-like isolation even at the SCO, an eight-nation grouping led by its “all-weather friend” China. Other members of the organisation, which first came into existence in 1995 and later reorganised in 2001, are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan were admitted in 2017, making SCO the largest regional organisation in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population.
The Bishkek Declaration on Friday, while emphasising that acts of terrorism and extremism couldn’t be justified, called on the international community to promote cooperation in combating the menace. The member states condemned terrorism in “all its forms and manifestations” and urged to “promote global cooperation in combating terrorism with the central role of the UN”. This seems much closer to the line pushed by India. Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Modi raised, without naming Pakistan, the issue of state-sponsored terrorism. He said that countries sponsoring, aiding and funding terrorism must be held accountable as he called for a global conference to discuss the issue.
A Ministry of External Affairs official says: “It’s a major diplomatic success for India to get this declaration on terrorism. It may in all practical purposes mean little on the ground, but what’s reassuring is that we have made Pakistan look for cover even in the grouping where its ‘best friend’, China, calls the shots.” He also says that Modi’s SCO endeavour began well before the government formation on 30 May. “Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s presence in New Delhi for the swearing-in ceremony was a well-calibrated move. The SCO was in Modi’s mind even before he took oath for the second time,” he adds. The invitation to Jeenbekov, the current chair of SCO, signalled the sincerity and seriousness with which New Delhi looked at the grouping.
Former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal believes an organisation like SCO “gets the best of our diplomacy” as he reminds this newspaper how the two principal powers in SCO—Russia and China—have tense relations with the United States, and “we have good relations with the Americans”. India’s presence in the organisation, Sibal says, can help restrain the United States, which is “pressing us very unreasonably on energy, on our defence ties with Russia, and of course on the trade issue”. But at the same time, he cautions, India must desist from “becoming party to any US bashing… We cannot afford to create more space for China and Russia—especially China—to become even more powerful and fill the vacuum created by any weakening of US powers”.
The common points that we have with SCO member states are globalisation, multilateralism, energy security, climate change, economic sanctions and terrorism, Sibal says, with a rider that the issue of terrorism is raised at the forum “just for the sake of it”. Pakistan, after all, is the hub of terrorism and is protected by China, he adds.
Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the SCO summit to further strengthen the bilateral relations. However, with his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, only pleasantries were exchanged, that too on the second day of the summit. Sareen believes Modi sent a very strong message when he refused to have any talks with Khan. “It’s a message not just for the Pakistanis, but also to other countries like China which often tries to intercede on their behalf,” says Sareen, as he adds that the SCO meet took place just a day after the Anantnag attack that killed five CRPF jawans.
Sibal, too, isn’t surprised with Modi’s rebuff to the Pakistan PM. “It’s on expected lines after Modi made Pakistan-based terrorism a major election campaign,” says the former Foreign Secretary, as he exposes how Khan’s peace overtures are nothing but empty gestures. “Pakistan’s strategy is to project Imran Khan as a peace-maker, a man who is genuinely seeking peace with India despite being snubbed repeatedly. It’s a win-win scenario for Pakistan: For, if Modi rejects the offer, he can be shown as unreasonable and unresponsive. And if he falls for the gesture, then Khan can go around the world saying if India can accept Pakistan’s credentials, then why not the West!” Sibal cautions that it would be “foolish on India’s part to repeat this costly mistake of agreeing prematurely for dialogue and leaving space for Pakistan to continue fomenting terrorism directly or through proxy in Jammu & Kashmir”.
A big part of the problem is the very nature of Pakistan and how its army perceives itself. In her 2014 book, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Pakistan expert C. Christine Fair writes that the Pakistan army believes it is “responsible for protecting not only Pakistan’s territorial frontiers but also its ideological frontiers”. According to her, the army, which controls the levers of power in Pakistan, views its struggle with India in existential terms. “For Pakistan’s men on horseback, not winning, even repeatedly, is not the same thing as losing. But simply giving up and accepting the status quo and India’s supremacy, is, by definition, defeat. As a former Chief of (Pakistan) Army Staff explained to me in 2000, Pakistan’s generals would always prefer to take a calculated risk and be defeated than to do nothing at all,” she says. This mindset explains Pakistan’s Kargil and other jihadi misadventures in India.
Rajiv Dogra, former consul general in Karachi and author of Where Borders Bleed, too, recalls how it’s mandatory for Pakistani defence officers to take oath “to engage in jihad against India”. The reasons Dogra finds in Anatol Lieven’s book, Pakistan: A Hard Country. Lieven writes, “His (Pakistani officer’s) image of Indians is of an anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim, treacherous people. So, he feels that he must always be ready to fight against India.”
In this mindset where the root cause of the India-Pakistan differences is ideological, if not religious, any dialogue without credible Pakistani action on the ground won’t fetch any result. Says Sareen, “All that a negotiation table does is that what is decided on the ground is formalised on the table. Even the Paris talks succeeded after the Vietnam War was decided on the ground.” He cautions that diplomacy is not just sitting across the table and talking to each other, as many so-called strategic experts in India believe. “That’s a very narrow definition. Diplomacy is also about how you use your leverages, economic heft, military power, and all elements of national power to achieve ends in the diplomatic sphere.”
Sibal concurs, “It’s (Modi government’s Pakistan policy) a huge improvement on previous policies. But Pakistan is a hard nut to crack, as the Americans have discovered in Afghanistan. If Pakistanis can handle the US, they can definitely handle India, especially with China on their side. It will take a long time before they realise that they are on a ruinous path.”