By Mayank Chhaya-
As the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member countries, including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, meet in Goa on May 4 and 5, there are no expectations of any significant bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan on the sidelines.
Comments by both Bhutto Zardari and India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in the runup to the SCO meeting suggest that the two countries do not view this platform as a venue to restart their long-stalled bilateral engagement.
For his part Bhutto Zardari has said “this visit should not be seen as a bilateral”. He has said the visit reflects “Pakistan’s continued commitment to the SCO charter and process along with the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities”.
Jaishankar has been quoted as saying, “It is very difficult for us to engage with a neighbor who practices cross-border terrorism against us.”
With that as the backdrop there does not appear to be any prospect of a substantive engagement between the two foreign ministers other than contrived graces of two top diplomats such as shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries for photo-ops.
Historically, India-Pakistan engagements have spun precariously around the issue of Kashmir with Islamabad obsessively insisting on a plebiscite under the United Nations Security Council’s 1948 resolution. However, over the decades that demand has lost all of its steam considering how fundamentally the world has changed since then. In the more current context, on August 5, 2019, the Indian government dramatically abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution that granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status.
On the one hand that action upended Pakistan’s diplomatic obsessions over Kashmir but on the other it handed Islamabad an opening to demand the reinstatement of Article 370. India has dismissed that demand comprehensively saying it is not just the country’s internal matter but, more importantly, its sovereign right and decision. That Indian stance has foreclosed any option on Kashmir being kept alive as the defining issue of any bilateral engagement.
Add to that Pakistan’s own grave existential crises on the economic as well as socio-cultural fronts and a picture emerges of a country that has rapidly lost ground in forcing any rethinking in India.
In the particular case of Bhutto Zardari, what Jaishankar and by extension the Modi government would be acutely aware of are his damning pronouncements in September last year against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
“From our perspective, this is a very different India,” Bhutto Zardari had said during an interaction at the Wilson Center on September 22, 2022. “Mr. Modi is not Mr. Manmohan Singh or even Mr. (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee. He is the same prime minister, who until he became prime minister, could not come to the United States. You wouldn’t give him a visa because of the massacre that occurred in Gujarat.”
He also said that Modi has “actively tried to turn India away from its secular roots where all Indian citizens had a place to a Hindu supremacist India.” The 34-year-old foreign minister argued that this change had a “direct consequences for the internationally disputed region of Kashmir which has made our conversation all the more difficult.”
He spoke India having “unilaterally, in violation of international law, in violation of (the) U.N. Security Council resolution undermined the internationally recognized disputed status of Kashmir.” He was clearly referring to the abrogation of Article 370 then. That is a position that India rejects out of hand.
Those comments were noted in New Delhi which has under Modi and Jaishankar taken a gloves-off approach to all international matters, especially with Pakistan. It is difficult for New Delhi to set aside Bhutto Zardari’s September, 2022, observations as just expedient rhetoric and instead see them for what they are—his and his Pakistan People’s Party’s long-held conviction in the face of fundamentally changed ground realities and geopolitical dynamic.
In diplomacy, there is always the hope something unscripted and dramatic happening, but no one is holding their breath over India and Pakistan in the context of Bhutto Zardari’s presence this week in salubrious climes of Goa.