Five Questions that the Modi Government's Latest U-Turn on Pak Talks Raises

If the flip-flop has laid bare the dysfunctionality of decision-making in New Delhi, the use of sharp language against Imran Khan suggests domestic political considerations have trumped diplomatic concerns.

New Delhi: This week, the Narendra Modi government first agreed to schedule a meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in New York, but then changed its mind within 24 hours, issuing an abrasively-drafted statement accusing Prime Minister Imran Khan of showing his “true face”. The Indian statement drew an angry retort from the Pakistani foreign office and then from Khan himself.

As analysts in both countries say the exchange has effectively ended the prospect of any engagement between Islamabad and New Delhi for the forseeable future, The Wire breaks down the sequence of events of this latest debacle in India-Pakistan ties to examine what the episode tells us about the  entire decision-making in India.

The story so far

In the run-up to Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) had spoken about India in a negative light, but largely to bait former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He accused Sharif of a “love fest with Modi” to save alleged business interests.

He also kept up a steady stream of political rhetoric on Kashmir, accompanied with barbs that Sharif had not been as supportive.

During the election campaign, Indian news channels often stressed the fact that Imran Khan’s electoral fortunes had been boosted by the support he was getting from the Pakistani establishment, i.e. military.

On July 26, Khan reached out to India in his victory speech, even as he lamented the fact that the Indian media had wrongly projected him as a “villain in a Bollywood film”.

Khan said that he was perhaps among thefew Pakistanis who understood India well. “I have travelled throughout India playing cricket”.

Four days later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Khan. While the Ministry of External Affairs said that the Indian PM spoke of his vision for peace and development in South Asia, Imran Khan’s party claimed that Modi had proposed the evolution of a “joint strategy” for developing bilateral ties.

Next, Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria called on Khan and presented him with a cricket bat signed by all the members of the Indian cricket team.

Indian high commissioner hands over a bat with signatures of the Indian team to Imran Khan. Credit: Twitter

On August 18, the day Khan was sworn in, Modi followed up his earlier phone call with an official letter of congratulations. The Indian foreign office gave no public details, but sources said Modi wrote of “India’s commitment to build good neighbourly relations between India and Pakistan and pursue meaningful and constructive engagement for the benefit of the people of the region”. Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi claimed that Modi had given a “given a message to initiate dialogue”, but his ministry quickly clarified that what was proposed was “constructive engagement” and that Pakistan remained in favour of the resumption of dialogue.

On August 23, Imran Khan tweeted an offer of assistance for the devastating Kerala floods.

Imran writes to Modi…

Three weeks later, Imran Khan replied to the Indian prime minister’s letter of congratulations  and requested Modi to allow the two foreign ministers to meet in New York. This was first reported by the Times of India on September 20, three days after Imran Khan’s letter was handed over to India.

Both Sushma Swaraj and Qureshi are attending the United Nations General Assembly and will be participating in the annual meeting of SAARC foreign ministers on the sidelines.

On the day the letter’s existence became public, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar announced that India had accepted Imran Khan’s proposal.

…and a meeting is scheduled in New York

“I can confirm that on the request of the Pakistani side a meeting between External Affairs Minister and Pakistani Foreign Minister will take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at a mutually convenient date and time,” said the spokesperson.

But he insisted this was only a meeting and “not a dialogue”.

Nevertheless, this was big news, as the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan had not held a bilateral conversation since December 2015.

The MEA official insisted that no agenda had been finalised for the meeting. There was, however, one topic that had already been allocated by Swaraj – the inclusion of Kartarpur Sahib in the places listed in the 1974 protocol between India and Pakistan on visits to religions shrines.

Kartarpur Sahib issue on the agenda

The issue of Kartarpur Sahib had become a focus for political one-upmanship between Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu and the Akalis. When Sidhu, as a fellow former cricketer, attended Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony, he used the opportunity to broach the proposal for a Kartarpur Sahib corridor and reported receiving a favourable response.

Sensing the Congress upstaging her party on an issue of great emotional importance for Sikh voters, Akali leader and minister for food processing industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal dashed off a letter to Sushma Swaraj mooting the same idea. When Sidhu met with Swaraj recently, the external affairs minister told him that Badal had already “flagged” the issue to her.

“…recently Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal Ji also wrote to EAM on this matter to which EAM has replied that she will raise this issue with the Pakistani government. Even now after so many years we do not have any official communication from the Pakistani government that they are willing to consider this matter. EAM will therefore raise this issue in her meeting with (the) Pakistani foreign Minister on the sidelines of (the) UNGA,” the MEA spokesperson said on September 20.

A day later, however, India announced that it was cancelling the New York meeting.

Back to square one

“In view of the changed situation, there will be no meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in New York,” Kumar said on Friday late afternoon.

The “changed situation” were two “disturbing developments” – the “latest killing” of security personnel and the release by Pakistan of stamps on the slain Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani.

Reason 1: Killing of Indian security personnel

When Pakistan issued a response on Friday to India’s decision to cancel the meeting, it assumed that the “latest killing”, which was not spelled out by India, referred to the discovery of Border Security Force jawan inside Pakistani territory.

Head constable Nagendra Singh had been part of a BSF party along the international boundary in the Ramgarh sector, when he went missing under heavy firing from the Pakistani side on September 18. A search party of BSF and Pakistani rangers found his body on the same day.

The BSF reported that Singh’s body had cut marks, including on his neck, and that he had been shot thrice.

Curiously, when India announced the acceptance of talks with Pakistan on Thursday, New Delhi was already aware of the killing of Nagendra Singh as the BSF had submitted a report to the government.

Indeed, the MEA spokesperson at Thursday’s press briefing had to field numerous questions by journalists about the news of the alleged mutilation of Nagendra Singh’s body.

The spokesperson also described the killing of Singh as defying logic, civilised behaviour and “against all international norms”. He added that the matter would be taken up with the Pakistani side at the appropriate level.

In other words, at the time the decision to green-light the Swaraj-Qureshi meeting was taken and announced, Nagendra Singh’s fate was not only known but it was also clear that this was not an impediment for the New York bilateral.

Asked why India had decided to hold talks after two years if it was not going to be substantive, Kumar echoed Swaraj’s statement in May that “talks on terror” can still take place.

“I will not get drawn into this again. I have time and again mentioned my position. Let us wait for the talks. I think we have said that talks and terror cannot go together but as somebody pointed out that, talks on terror can go on. So I think let us wait for the meeting between our external affairs minister and the Pakistani foreign minister to happen,” the MEA spokesperson said.

Incidentally, after India withdrew its approval, the twitter handle of the ruling party, BJP posted a video clip of External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj at the annual MEA press conference in May where she reiterated the policy on talks with Pakistan.

While Pakistan assumed that India was referring to the BSF soldier’s killing, government sources in Delhi told The Wire that MEA’s statement was meant to be a reference to the abduction and killing of three Jammu and Kashmir state policemen on Friday morning.

But the sources would not explain why this incident became an impediment to the meeting when this was not the first time that J&K police personnel have been attacked and killed by militants, who consider them a soft target. The Hizbul Mujahideen has launched a campaign to target state policemen, special police officers and their families.

With three months left in 2018, official estimates have already equalled last year’s total number of 33 policemen killed by militants.

Reason 2: Pakistan’s Kashmir postage stamps

India also cited the release of 20 postage stamps by Pakistan “glorifying a terrorist” as the second “disturbing” development which had revealed the “true face” of Khan.

Pakistan has certainly used Burhan Wani’s killing by Indian security personnel to raise the profile of Kashmir, domestically and internationally. In 2016, the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, hailed the Hizbul Mujahideen commander in his speech at the UNGA.

However, as the Pakistani foreign ministry noted in its statement after India pulled the plug on the New York meeting, the postage stamps in question were released before the elections and therefore, Khan was not responsible for their release. At that time, a caretaker government under Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk was in place to conduct the elections, as per the constitution.

The set of 20 stamps were released by Pakistan Post on ‘Kashmir Martyrs Day’ on July 13. The dates of the release are confirmed by several media reports, as well, as a July 17 letter to the editor in a Pakistani paper.

When reporters pointed out that the stamps were released before Khan became prime minister, Indian officials said out that media reports about the stamps appeared only on September 20. The officials said that the government could not rely on mere media reports and had to confirm the veracity, which was done by Thursday night.

Pakistan Post’s press release before the issuance of the stamps on July 13, 2018.

Nevertheless, the question still remains: If India was aware of the existence of Pakistan’s Burhan Wani postage stamps on the morning of September 20 when the Times of India first reported it, and if the report disturbed the PMO and MEA enough to “confirm the veracity” of the report, why did the government not wait till its investigation was completed before announcing its acceptance of Imran Khan’s proposal for talks?

‘Undiplomatic’ language

Even as India flip-flopped on the talks, seasoned observers of the relationship were also taken aback at the language used in the Indian statement about Imran Khan.

“Now, it is obvious that behind Pakistan’s proposal for talks to make a fresh beginning, the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been revealed to the world in his first few months in office. (emphasis added)”

Indian statements on Pakistan have often had a rhetorical flourish, for eg. the use of the phrase  “mothership of terrorism”. But India has never personally blamed a Pakistani leader by name in public, even after there have been major terrorism attacks on India at Uri or 26/11.

At least one former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, Sharat Sabhwal went public with his misgivings over the MEA’s language, which he said was too poor and “election oriented” to have been drafted by professional diplomats from the Indian Foreign Service:

However South Block officials are convinced that the personal attack on the Pakistani prime minister is justified, as Imran Khan is claimed to behind the current “mess”. And even if Imran Khan is not personally responsible, he is hand-in-glove with the Pakistani establishment, they argue.

Another retired Indian ambassador, who did not want to be named, told The Wire that it would have better to avoid the language used with regard to Imran Khan.

There has also been criticism of the phrase the MEA used to denote Khan’s length of tenure as PM. The Indian statement of September 20 claims that Khan’s “true face” has been revealed in his “first few months in office”. The former cricketer was, however, sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister on August 18, and has just about completed his first month.

What next?

Following the Indian cancellation, Khan also took a swipe at the Indian leadership in a tweet.

The cancellation of talks and sharpening of rhetoric has also been accompanied by a war of words between the Indian and Pakistani militaries.

People-to-people relations are also likely to be adversely affected. The Tribune reported one immediate fallout: withdrawal of invitations extended to Pakistani chefs for the World Heritage Cuisine Summit & Food Festival 2018, to be held in Amritsar.

Indian officials say that they were aware the Indian statement has closed all avenues for talks with Pakistan, at least till the general elections next year.

The United Nations General Assembly will witness the next war of words, with the two foreign ministers expected to use their speeches to attack each other on the international platform.

Later this month, the Modi government also intends to celebrate ‘Surgical Strikes Day’ to mark the Indian army’s shallow raids against militant “launch pads” along the Line of Control on September 29, 2016.

Five unanswered questions

A review of the events of the past 48 hours raises several questions about the decision-making process in New Delhi that the Modi government needs to answer:

1. While Imran Khan’s letter did become public on September 20, why was the Indian government in a hurry to make a public announcement accepting Pakistan’s proposal for talks at New York on the same day?

2. Once the announcement was made, the Indian government cites the “latest killing” of Indian security personnel for cancelling the foreign minister-level talks. Why wasn’t the same reason used a day earlier when reports of the mutilation of a BSF soldier had been confirmed?

3. India’s announcement that it would meet Pakistan’s foreign minister in New York was made on the afternoon of September 20. The Times of India report on the ‘Burhan Wani stamps’ was published the same morning. Since the government was aware of the reports of the release of the stamps, why wasn’t it a factor in the decision-making on Thursday, but used as a reason to cancel the talks on Friday?

4. Foreign ministries use language carefully to allow space for future manoeuvres and the use of  rhetoric escalates slowly depending on the scale of events. Why did the Indian statement personally attack the one-month-old Pakistan prime minister, in a break from its own precedence?

5. Since Imran Khan’s letter was addressed to Narendra Modi, it is obvious that the decision to schedule the meeting of foreign ministers was cleared by the prime minister himself, presumably on the advice of his national security adviser, Ajit Doval. Even if Modi, as a politician facing re-election, has to consider the domestic political fall-out from the Pakistani establishment’s involvement in violence and terror inside India, why did he not take those into account before agreeing to the meet in the first place?