India last week announced the cancellation of a planned meeting between Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi. It had been scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York this week.
The meeting, requested by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in a letter to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, would have marked the first high-level exchange between the two countries in several years. The India-Pakistan relationship has been ice-cold since 2016, when several terrorist attacks on Indian soldiers and an Indian cross-border military strike plunged bilateral ties into deep crisis.
New Delhi’s decision is unfortunate, given that it’s always better for two nuclear-armed rivals to be talking than jawing. Ultimately, however, the cancellation is wholly unsurprising.
India’s stated reasons for the annulment of the meeting were two recent developments: One was the recent killings of several members of the Indian security forces in Kashmir, which it blamed on “Pakistan-based entities.” The other was Pakistan’s release of commemorative stamps for Burhan Wani — a young Kashmiri man killed by Indian security forces in 2016. Pakistan lauds him as a freedom fighter and hero; India denounces him as a terrorist.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs released a remarkably harshly worded statement that said in part: “It is obvious that behind Pakistan’s proposal for talks to make a fresh beginning, the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been revealed to the world.”
In reality, India’s unwillingness to see the meeting go ahead can be attributed to more than its anger about those two incidents. Consider the broader political context. Pakistan has a new government, led by Khan, who engaged in frequent anti-India rhetoric in the months preceding the July election. He is also close to the Pakistani military, which New Delhi blames for supporting terrorist organizations that stage attacks in India.
Meanwhile, India has its own election next spring. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a conservative nationalist party, has engaged in virulently anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Having Swaraj meet Qureshi would have been a big gamble. A productive meeting may have raised pressure for additional exchanges, and even for a resumption of high-level, high-stakes diplomacy with India’s rival, perhaps involving Modi himself.
Canceled meeting sees India looking inflexible, while the Pakistan government, which requested the meeting, has suffered an early diplomatic defeat.Michael Kugelman
For the BJP, there is zero political mileage to be gained from pursuing dialogue with India’s bitter rival, much less pulling off a Nixon-goes-to-China act just months before a critical election. It may be a risk worth taking for a fresh government with a strong mandate, but not for one nearing the end of its term and finding itself politically vulnerable, especially in the aftermath of several policies and scandals that have been damaging to the BJP.
However, none of this is to suggest that India wouldn’t have derived benefits from having the meeting. It would have enabled New Delhi to test the waters with the new civilian administration in Islamabad. Political transitions, after all, beget opportunities for fresh starts.
Additionally, Khan’s closeness to the army can actually be viewed as a positive for India. New Delhi rightly dismissed the previous Pakistani government as an insignificant player in any type of serious negotiation because the Pakistani military — angry about the government’s policies — had cut it down to size to the point that it enjoyed little policy space and power. By contrast, Khan — at least at this early point in his term — is not constrained.
Furthermore, the low expectations set by India — New Delhi had made it quite clear that the exchange would simply be a meeting, not a formal dialogue — meant that the stakes would have been small and the risks quite modest.
Ultimately, however, India likely concluded that the arrival of Pakistan’s new government doesn’t strengthen prospects for improved bilateral relations, and therefore that the meeting, no matter how modest and informal it may have been, was simply not worth doing.
To be sure, Khan has taken a conciliatory position toward New Delhi since taking office, and he has emphasized his deep ties to India, which stretch back to his cricketing days.
Still, the trend lines for India-Pakistan relations under Khan are not encouraging. He has expressed sympathy for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and staunchly opposed the idea of using force against Pakistani militants. With that track record, it is safe to say he won’t try to leverage his close ties to the army to try to persuade it to crack down on anti-India terrorist groups on Pakistani soil. For India, however, the terrorism issue is a fundamental concern — and addressing it is a precondition for formal talks.
Additionally, Khan has telegraphed a strong desire to resolve the Kashmir dispute with India. However, for the current Indian government at least, this is not a negotiable issue. This means that the Indians may well view Khan’s conciliatory position as a tactic to convince India to resume a formal dialogue; and one that revolves around the Kashmir issue. Accordingly, any olive branch extended by Khan will be viewed with suspicion by New Delhi.
In the end, both sides lose out from the canceled meeting. The Indian government comes out looking inflexible, while the Pakistani administration, which requested the meeting, has suffered an early diplomatic defeat.
It is not the first time that hopes for easing India-Pakistan tensions have been misplaced. And it certainly won’t be the last.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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