IT is no big secret that the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a damp squib. The impression becomes unavoidable that the decision to invite the little-known BIMSTEC leaders to PM Narendra Modi’s inaugural ceremony on May 30 is prompted by the genuine urge to give a ‘regional’ coloring to the Indian mega event while also giving it a historicity — but, in reality, to somehow exclude Pakistan from the guest list.
In an ideal setting, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) could and should have been the authentic geopolitical union of regional states in South Asia to embellish such a historic occasion, but, clearly, that is too much to expect when Modi government is, on the other hand, holding even the group’s annual summit hostage to the India-Pakistan tensions.
However, there is also a greater logic in the Indian decision. First, the ceremony on May 30 is all about Modi and there is the great risk that Imran Khan who is a rockstar among Indians might end up stealing the show — that is, if he were to accept an Indian invitation and travel to Delhi at such short notice (of which there is no absolute certainty, of course.)
So far, Imran Khan has avoided excessive globe-trotting and has traveled abroad very purposively with clear-cut result-oriented agenda in mind — the Persian Gulf, Malaysia, and Turkey, apart from two visits to China. But this charismatic international celebrity is not to be underestimated for his panache for grandstanding and might find irresistible to pose as a conquering hero in the backdrop of the old Moghul capital.
The fact of the matter is that a tough, muscular policy toward Pakistan has brought rich electoral dividends to the BJP and to Modi’s leadership, in particular, by far exceeding anyone’s expectations.
Second, on a serious note, an invite to Imran Khan would have meant an overnight jettisoning of all the diatribes against Pakistan that provided the ammunition for Modi’s fiery election speeches up until last week. That U-turn would have been a bit too much to expect, as it could expose Modi to ridicule for having hoodwinked the Indian public and manipulated their sense of patriotism for extracting votes out of them.
Third, most importantly, Modi is also wiser today about international diplomacy. The impulsive actions vis-a-vis Pakistan in his first tenure as PM — invitation to the Pakistani PM to attend the inaugural in May 2014 (but only to scuttle under the flimsiest of excuses soon thereafter any form of dialogue with Pakistan at any level) and the stunning quasi-official trip to Nawaz’s home in Lahore in December 2015 (which probably triggered the terrorist attack on the IAF base at Pathankot) are even today often cited as acts of monumental folly.
Suffice to say, Modi 2.0 would engage with Pakistan, but in good time and with the ground prepared in advance. Meanwhile, why such tearing hurry? An opportunity is coming up anyway within the coming fortnight for Modi to interact with Imran Khan on the sidelines of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek on June 13-14.
However, the big question remains: Where is it that India-Pakistan relations are headed? To be sure, at some point in the future, the incoming Modi government will engage with Pakistan. But the question is, of what avail? To be sure, Pakistan is willing to look away from the anti-Muslim attitudes of the Indian ruling elite or the violence and discrimination directed against Indian Muslims, which is an almost daily occurrence. But then, in the prevailing milieu, rational give-and-take in diplomacy at the official level becomes unsustainable.
The big question remains: Where is it that India-Pakistan relations are headed? To be sure, at some point in the future, the incoming Modi government will engage with Pakistan.
It is practically impossible for the new Modi government to overlook the mandate it received from the Indian electorate for pursuing a hardline policy toward Pakistan — including the use of the nuclear option, if necessary. That is to say, the burden will be on Pakistan to work for amity with India by making concessions and reconciling with the status of a junior partner apropos of the range of issues that affect the relationship, starting from the Kashmir problem.
The recent Indian rejoinder to the latest report by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council alleging violations and torture in the militancy-hit Jammu and Kashmir, which rejects the highly critical report and virtually tells the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to go hell — “India does not intend to further engage with these mandate-holders or any other mandate-holders on the issue.” — makes no bones about Delhi’s current haughty mindset.
Simply put, iron entered into India’s soul and it will no longer accept the UN or Pakistan or anyone under the sun as an interlocutor on the Kashmir issue where the only unresolved question concerns the vacation of illegal occupation by Pakistan.
Indeed, the Modi government’s thinking bears striking similarity with the Israeli approach to the annexation of the Palestinian Territories. In fact, considering the massive mandate received by Modi to lead the new government, it is entirely conceivable that the abolition of Article 370 of the constitution granting special status to J&K may be entering the realm of possibility during the coming 5-year period.
Islamabad must be quite aware of the consequent uncertainties that lie ahead in normalizing relations with the incoming Indian government. Clearly, the two overblown myths — that normalization of India-Pakistan relations goes down well with the Indian public at large and/or that a right-wing government in Delhi makes an ideal partner for the Pakistani establishment — have fallen by the wayside. The matrix has changed.
The fact of the matter is that a tough, muscular policy toward Pakistan has brought rich electoral dividends to the BJP and to Modi’s leadership, in particular, by far exceeding anyone’s expectations. And this tested trajectory has far from exhausted itself. Quite possibly, it has vast untapped potential still remaining for the making of ‘New India’.
Pakistan never before figured in an Indian election in such a manner as happened in recent months. And so long as a government that is based on the Hindutva ideology is in power in Delhi, India’s domestic politics and the government’s Pakistan policies will be living a conjoined life — inseparable.
New India expects Pakistan’s obedience. There can be no comprises on this score. The decision to exclude Imran Khan from the ceremony in Delhi on May 30, which Indian dailies have reported as a deliberate ‘snub’, is consistent with this overall approach.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.