At 21 degrees Celsius, the weather in Bishkek was cool, away from the heat of Delhi and Islamabad. And with a spectacular view of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan were in the same room for about nine hours over two days, but the shoulder could not have been colder.
Except for a few minutes when they exchanged pleasantries and a handshake in the leaders’ lounge Friday far from the prying eyes of the cameras.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi summed it up. Asked how much time the two Prime Ministers spent with each other, he told The Indian Express, “I didn’t have a stopwatch.” Qureshi was the first official to confirm that the leaders met saying, “They exchanged pleasantries and shook hands.” He also told Pakistani media that Khan congratulated Modi on his election victory.
— Shubhajit Roy (@ShubhajitRoy) June 14, 2019
Separately, the Indian government sources, too, said Modi “exchanged usual pleasantries with Pakistan PM Imran Khan in the leaders’ lounge”. But they were also emphatic that there was “no meeting, no pull aside”.
And when Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday, he told him that he has made efforts to initiate peace with Pakistan, but that his efforts have been “derailed”.
Modi, who met Xi for a bilateral meeting, also said Pakistan needs to create an atmosphere “free of terrorism”, but at this stage, Delhi has not seen that from Islamabad’s side.
Earlier, though Islamabad gave overflight clearance, Modi chose to not fly over Pakistan’s airspace on his way to Bishkek in a bid to make a point over Pakistan’s airspace closure.
Incidentally, while Modi stayed at the Orion Hotel in central Bishkek, all other SCO leaders, including Khan stayed at the Al Archa Presidential Palace of the Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. It meant Modi and Khan stayed at least 30 km away from each other.
That the Prime Minister was keeping away from Khan was evident at a round table dinner of eight leaders at the famous Frunze restaurant Thursday evening. Then, separated by at least two leaders and almost facing each other, Modi and Khan exchanged no pleasantries.
“Koi dua-salaam nahin hua (there was no exchange of pleasantries),” a source had told The Indian Express, after the dinner. They didn’t speak at a gala concert at the Kyrgyz National Philharmonic either.
Even in the group photograph Friday morning at the Presidential Palace, the two leaders stood separated by four leaders in between, including Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The cold shoulder, by then, was loud and clear.
This was different from two years ago with then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, when the two had met at the leaders’ lounge in the opera house in Astana during the SCO summit. There, they exchanged greetings and since it was the first occasion when the two leaders came across each other after Sharif’s surgery, Modi had asked about his health, his mother and family.
But in Bishkek on Friday, at the extended plenary session with Khan listening in, Modi said that countries responsible for aiding, supporting and funding should be held accountable. In response, Khan too seized the opportunity to condemn “State-terrorism against people under illegal occupation”, alluding to Jammu and Kashmir.
This was, in a way, violated the common understanding that members countries will not drag bilateral issues in the SCO platform.
Advocating a “terrorism-free society”, Modi told SCO leaders, including Khan, Xi, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, that to combat terrorism, countries will have to come out of their narrow purview to unite against it, adding that “countries responsible for aiding, supporting and providing financial assistance to terrorists should be held accountable”.
Khan, who spoke after Modi, said, “Growing intolerance and Islamophobia are threatening to accentuate religious fault-lines. For its part, Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including State-terrorism against people under illegal occupation.”
Underlining that South Asia continues to be challenged by common enemies: poverty, illiteracy, disease and under-development, Khan said, “Political differences and unresolved disputes further compound the predicament. Enduring peace and prosperity in South Asia will remain elusive until the main dynamic in South Asia is shifted from confrontation to cooperation.”
The Bishkek declaration, too, mentioned “cross-border” security threats in the context of terrorism. India has always maintained that cross-border terrorism alludes to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Madhumita Hazarika Bhagat, joint secretary, SCO, in the Ministry of External Affairs, said, “We have spoken together on terrorism. It is a strong statement and is a consensus statement.”
Modi also said that HEALTH is a good template for cooperation with SCO, and de-abbreviated – H for Healthcare cooperation, E for Economic cooperation, A for Alternate energy, L for Literature and culture, T for Terrorism free society and H for Humanitarian cooperation.
For, Delhi and Islamabad, it was yet another day of so close, and yet so far.