By Mayank Chhaya-
A frosty namaste and some extraordinarily harsh tongue-lashing is what Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari received during his two-day visit to India, the first by his country’s foreign minister in 12 years.
Bhutto Zardari was in Goa on May 4 and 5 to attend the meeting of the foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar left nothing to the imagination when he said at the end of the SCO meeting in Panaji, “As a Foreign Minister of an SCO member state, Mr. Bhutto Zardari was treated accordingly. As a promoter, justifier and, and I am sorry to say, spokesperson of a terrorism industry, which is the mainstay of Pakistan, his positions were called out and countered including at the SCO meeting itself.”
“Victims of terrorism do not sit together with its perpetrators to discuss terrorism,” Jaishankar said.
In case it was lost on anyone that New Delhi was not treating the visit by Pakistan’s foreign minister even nominally bilateral on the sidelines of a multilateral engagement, Jaishankar said, “He (Bhutto) came here as a foreign minister of a member state. Please don’t see it as anything else.”
Jaishankar’s ire was probably a response to Bhutto Zardari telling India Today TV in an interview this, “Unless India reviews the action it took on August 5, 2019 (abrogation of Article 370), Pakistan is not in a position to engage bilaterally with India.”
“Article 370 is history. Wake up and smell the coffee,” was how Jaishankar countered that comment.
Although nothing of any bilateral significance was expected to come out for India and Pakistan from the get-go, the harshness of the Indian response was remarkable. So much so that Jaishankar even found it fair game to Pakistan’s desperate economic situation when he said, “On terrorism, Pakistan’s credibility is depleting even faster than its forex reserves.” That was as below the belt as it could get in terms of bilateral relations.
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.
Beyond its historic obsessions, it is hard to comprehend what is propelling Bhutto Zardari’s choice of actively foreclosing any option for a dialogue with India. It is almost as if both countries have decided not to maintain even a semblance of diplomatic nicety anymore.
The last time Pakistan’s foreign minister came to India was in 2011 when Hina Rabbani Khar met with her Indian vis-à-vis S M Krishna. That meeting did not lead to any breakthrough. By a remarkable coincidence Khar was 34 then, the same age as Bhutto Zardari now. Krishna was 79 then and Jaishankar is 68 now, twice his Pakistani counterpart’s age. Khar happens to be Minister of State for Foreign Affairs now, a sort of deputy to Bhutto Zardari.