Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi met at Ufa in Russia, attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, where India and Pakistan were elevated from observers to members. The media in Pakistan watched the ceremonial handshake between the two on TV and disapproved of the way Modi didn’t walk halfway up, although it was apparent that Modi had got to that point earlier and didn’t have to walk towards Nawaz. This was a repeat of the manner in which Pakistan read the gestures the last time Modi and Nawaz were together — at Modi’s investiture in May 2014. Some retired Pakistani diplomats had become abusive of Nawaz for having brought shame to the nation by sucking up to India while its “unprovoked” shelling was killing villagers across the LoC.
The joint statement after the meeting got no marks at all, even though the foreign office in Islamabad welcomed it. Opposition leaders ganged up with TV anchors and analysts to condemn the reference to Mumbai without a countervailing reference to Kashmir, although the statement mentioned the resumption of the bilateral dialogue. Everyone took umbrage at India bringing up the case of Pakistani terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who had organised the 2008 Mumbai carnage, being released on bail in Pakistan. Why didn’t the statement contain the Pakistani plaint about Indian terrorist intervention in Pakistan through the MQM and Baloch insurrectionists, if the statement was not dictated by India? One Urdu newspaper called Modi a posturing “shahenshah (emperor)”.
The more sober analysis was minimalist but upbeat, welcoming Modi’s acceptance of the invitation to the Saarc summit in Pakistan next year, recalling that his predecessor Manmohan Singh couldn’t visit Pakistan during his 10 years in power. That Indian and Pakistani officers will talk across the LoC is a good omen. It might put a stop to the crossborder shelling that sours relations on a daily basis, and no one in the world except the two antagonists can decide who is to blame. Another shameful issue that could be decided is what the two sides do to each other’s fishermen when they stray into non-demarcated coastal waters. The decision to make the security advisors meet might help put a stop to leaders making needlessly provocative statements that no sane South Asian can appreciate.
The irony of Modi winning the vote in India pledging hardline action against Pakistan and Nawaz winning in Pakistan pledging normalisation with India through trade was noted too. But Modi’s decision to visit Pakistan in the footsteps of his more statesmanlike party predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the fact that Modi actually has a meeting of minds with Nawaz on economic liberalisation, were ignored. Modi’s attempt to go to the UN with a terrorism plaint against Pakistan was aggressively highlighted but that Pakistan will likely commit the same mistake against India was welcomed, speculating that Pakistan’s UN representative, Maleeha Lodhi, was in Pakistan to get primed for that démarche.
The truth is that India and Pakistan have bilateralised their disputes but keep making the mistake of piling them on a world that doesn’t want to listen. Last time Pakistan went to the International Court of Justice against India, the court, apart from protesting its lack of jurisdiction under the “optional clause”, advised Pakistan to accept that all Indo-Pak disputes were legally bilateral and had to be resolved bilaterally. The good thing is that this Modi-Nawaz meeting has reopened the “normalisation dialogue” suspended because the two sides have been busy making life difficult for the people of South Asia since 2008.
The SCO may look like it has been formed to “keep America out”, but subliminally it is against terrorism, specifically against “Islamic terrorism”, which threatens the regions abutting China and Russia. An irony that Pakistanis can’t miss is that this terrorism is being incubated on Pakistani territory and the world expects Pakistan to do something about it without playing what is now called the “double game”. Central Asia is also under threat and most of the region’s states are in the SCO. They are looking at Pakistan, whose new army chief says he will root out the training camps. In December last year, of the eight terrorists who slaughtered children at the army public school in Peshawar, six were Uzbeks and one, Chechen.
One item that has caused some misplaced dudgeon in Pakistan is India’s pro forma plaint about the economic corridor China will build from the Gwadar port to the northern tip of Pakistan for $46 billion, allowing China a trade outlet to the world outside. China has already built the Karakoram Highway through the same “disputed” Kashmir territory, which didn’t prevent Modi from visiting China recently to collect $20 billion in investments that observers think will come to fruition earlier than Pakistan’s economic corridor. If the Saarc is revived by Modi and Nawaz, the economic corridor will have more South Asian traffic than oil and gas from the Gulf. Afghanistan has transit trade with India through Pakistan, but Pakistan — not Nawaz personally — will not allow Afghanistan to get Indian goods via the same route.
The India-Pakistan “thing” in the region is hardly rational. The two are fighting a “relocated” war in Afghanistan that Pakistan thinks is Indian mischief. But the fact is that no state west of Pakistan is at ease with what Pakistani non-state actors would do to them, even as Islamabad acts innocent: “Aren’t we the victim too?” The Kabul-Taliban dialogue going on in Pakistan is bedevilled by the uncontested knowledge that Pakistan has no control over the Taliban it has “delivered” to this meeting. Iran is punch-drunk with what Pakistan is doing to its Shia community and doesn’t know what to make of Pakistan signing on the Iranian gas pipeline now under sanctions. India opted out of it, probably prescient of what was coming. But Delhi has signed on to the Turkmen gas pipeline “TAPI” — in which the “P” stands for Pakistan and is probably more dicey than the Iranian one. Yet, Pakistan and India are jointly threatened by energy crises and climate change. Nawaz and Modi know this, and they would trade rather than fight a war with nuclear weapons in their attics.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’