A day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan land in the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital, it’s cloudy in Bishkek and five Indian medical students are posing for photos in front of an imposing Soviet-era building that houses the state history museum at Ala-Too Square in the heart of the city.
Dressed in green, their convocation colours, and sporting black graduation caps, they also have a message for the two leaders. “They should meet, keep their politics aside, and talk about the problems,” says Ritesh Kumar Sharma, a 24-year-old from Jaipur, who proudly displays his MBBS degree and album from the International School of Medicine in Bishkek.
To begin with, Sharma and his friends want Modi and Khan to sort out a pressing issue. Many of the 9,000 Indian students in this country are unable to afford flight tickets to go home ever since Pakistan closed its airspace in February, following the Balakot air strikes.
“Many are suffering since the flights have to avoid Pakistan’s airspace and take longer routes, which means much higher fares,” says Sharma, as his friends nod their heads.
On Wednesday, the flight issue was under the spotlight in India, too, with the government deciding that the Prime Minister’s flight for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit starting Friday in Bishkek will not fly over Pakistan airspace. Instead, the flight will go via Oman.
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“The Government of India had explored two options for the route to be taken by the VVIP aircraft to Bishkek. A decision has now been taken that the VVIP aircraft will fly via Oman, Iran and Central Asian countries on the way to Bishkek,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said. Sources said a decision on the VVIP route is usually based on a number of considerations, including “security and efficiency”.
Pakistan had earlier responded to an Indian request by conveying its decision to give flight clearance for the PM’s flight. Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson Mohammad Faisal tweeted: “India requested 2 overflight clearances for Indian PM & EAM. After requisite processing, permission was granted earlier today. It is upto India what route it decides to use… Pakistan also granted flight clearance to earlier Indian request for EAM travel to Bishkek 21-22 May 2019.”
This back-and-forth has set the stage for the next 48 hours, when Modi and Khan are scheduled to be in Bishkek. While the MEA spokesperson has maintained that there is no meeting planned on the sidelines, sources have not ruled out a possibility of a “pull-aside”.
Modi lands in Bishkek Thursday noon for the first multilateral visit in his second term as Prime Minister. He will attend a couple of bilateral meetings, including with Chinese President Xi Jinping, before the inaugural banquet hosted by Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and a cultural programme.
Khan also lands Thursday. While Modi is likely to stay at a luxury hotel in central Bishkek, Khan is learnt to be staying at the state guest house, Al Archa. Both leaders will be at the banquet.
“We attach special importance to SCO in promoting multilateral, political, security, economic and people-to-people interaction in the region,” Modi said ahead of his departure.
“The summit is expected to discuss the global security situation, multilateral economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges and topical issues of international and regional importance. On the sidelines of the summit, I also plan to meet several leaders bilaterally,” he said.
With a powerful China in the neighbourhood and an ambitious Russia enmeshed in Kyrgyz society, the summit is taking place at a time when global geopolitics is undergoing tectonic shifts. “India’s initial expectation was to use its membership in the SCO as a stepping stone to reach out to Central Asia. But today, multiple conflicting interests intersect at the SCO ranging from regional and global issues to combating terrorism. India’s position here suffers from a set of contradictory situations and conflicting elements. Its position may sometimes be at odds with those of other countries,” said former Indian envoy to Kyrgyzstan, Phunchok Stobdan.
“On the one hand, India has to act like a willing partner of regional cooperation led by China and Russia. On the other, it wishes to be a strategic ally of the US,” he said.
Meena Singh Roy, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said, “While India had refused to endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative at the last SCO summit in Qingdao, we hope that India pushes for SCO connectivity. The connectivity issue has been hijacked by BRI and China.”
But she, too, has moderated her expectations from the summit, and feels that India will face a challenge if it has to sign off on any anti-US statement.
Officials, however, said India will push the issue of connectivity and counter-terrorism. Alok Dimri, India’s Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic, recalled Modi’s last visit to Bishkek in July 2015. “There’s an excitement as people admire the democratic traditions in India. And the Prime Minister’s first bilateral visit, outside the neighbourhood, conveys a strong message to the country,” he said.