Astana: When the Indian prime minister lands in Astana, he will be very nearly replaying a script that played out in Kazakhstan 15 years ago.
In 2002, then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf went to Kazakhstan’s old capital of Almaty for the first meeting of the heads of states of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held on June 3-5. Vajpayee flew in while thousands of Indian troops were still mobilised at the border with Pakistan, following the December 2002 stand off. While the Almaty conference was on, the US and UK had issued advisories urging their citizens in India and Pakistan to leave given the rising possibility of a full-blown war.
Just like today, the CICA conference was preceded by media speculation on the possibility of a ‘handshake’ between the South Asian leaders. In the end, both leaders ‘spoke’ to each other only through their official speeches. Musharraf asked India to “return to the path of dialogue and negotiations,” while Vajpayee stated that India was willing to discuss all issues, including Kashmir, “but for that, cross-border terrorism has to end”.
Recalling the 2002 conference, a Kazakh diplomat suggested that Astana could be the second time that Indian and Pakistani leaders will be at the same place during a difficult time in their relationship. His sentiment was a reflection of the view here that the pleasant weather in Astana could lower the temperature in the relationship between the South Asian neighbours and mark the first expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
India has already ruled out a structured dialogue with Pakistan. “Like external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said, there is no request from either side for a meeting between Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and Prime Minister [Nawaz] Sharif. I believe that there is no change in that status,” Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay said on Wednesday.
This, of course, does not rule out any inadvertent encounters. Both leaders will be taking part in the plenary meeting of the SCO summit, where India and Pakistan will ceremoniously become part of the grouping. India had to sign 38 agreements in the year-long process to become a full member of the SCO.
Before their formal induction, both leaders will also be at the grand Opera House on Thursday evening, followed by banquet hosted by long-standing Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This will be the first time that the two will face each other since Modi flew to Lahore in 2015 in a surprise visit.
As Swaraj said on Monday, circumstances have changed since 2015, when relations had a hopeful tinge. Attacks on Indian army installations in Pathankot and Uri, the Kashmir violence and the conviction in Pakistan of Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav have hardened positions on both sides of the border over the last 18 months.
Modi’s first bilateral meet after he arrives in Astana is with his host, who has ruled over Central Asia’s largest and most prosperous country for 26 years. To mark the visit, a new air route between Delhi and Astana was announced, which will likely lighten the burden on Almaty airport, which was the regional hub for all flights from India.
Modi will hold a breakfast meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday morning. Last year, Modi met with Xi just a day before the plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Seoul to make a last-minute appeal on India’s application. It made no difference – in fact China was unusually active in putting roadblocks on India’s path.
Incidentally, while eight leaders have flown in for the SCO summit, more than double that number have also specifically been invited for ‘Expo 2017′. With leaders from the Serbian president to the crown prince of UAE attending, all the top hotels in Astana are completely booked. The Indian prime minister is joined by Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić at Astana’s Radisson Hotel.
Modi and Vučić will also both take part in the inauguration of Astana Expo 2017, an expo that will be held over the next three months. India had not participated the last expo in Italy, miffed over the Italian marines issue which had strained ties. But despite not being a member of the International Bureau of Expositions, India’s India Trade Promotion Organisation has set up one of the largest pavilions at the world fair.