New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan will meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 13-14 June to kickstart talks between the two countries, a highly-placed Indian official told ThePrint.
This would be the two leaders’ first meeting since Khan assumed office as Pakistan Prime Minister last year.
Modi, who has returned to power with a resounding victory, seems to have got his way with Pakistan by making them seek a resumption of dialogue four times in the last few days.
Khan had called Modi Sunday, expressing his desire to work together. On 23 May, after the Lok Sabha election results were announced, Khan had tweeted his congratulations to the PM. One day before the results, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had told his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj in Bishkek that Pakistan wanted peace. On 25 May, Qureshi said in Multan that Pakistan was willing to resolve all outstanding issues with India. The Pakistan Prime Minister had pointed out as far back as April that peace stood a better chance if Modi returned to power.
Countries like the US, China, and key Arab states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which played a key role in preventing a military escalation in the wake of the Balakot air strikes, will heave a huge sigh of relief that the hostile neighbours have begun talking again.
India had conducted the 26 February Balakot air strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camps in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the wake of the Pulwama attack, which saw a suicide bomber affiliated with the group kill 40 CRPF personnel.
The two nations then came dangerously close to war as Pakistan Air Force planes entered Indian territory the next day to target military installations. Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s plane was shot down over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the ensuing dogfight. The pilot was captured by Pakistan but returned 60 hours later.
Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and PM Khan are selling the impending resumption of dialogue from a position of strength.
“We gave Wing Commander Abhinandan back to India within a couple of days after he was captured and after Pakistan retaliated against the Balakot strikes,” a Pakistani official told ThePrint.
“The score is now 1-1 between India and Pakistan.”
Whatever the imagined score, and irrespective of the death toll in Balakot, fact is the IAF strikes deep inside Pakistani territory sent a message to the Pakistan establishment, as well as the rest of the world, that Prime Minister Modi won’t tolerate cross-border terrorism.
On top of the agenda at the 13-14 June Bishkek meeting, the Indian official told ThePrint, will be Modi’s insistence that Pakistan abide by its 2004 promise that it will not use its territory to allow terrorists to infiltrate into India.
“If Pakistan, indeed, wants a return to dialogue then it has to totally stop cross-border infiltration into the Kashmir Valley,” the Indian official said.
“No more attacks. Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba chief Hafiz Saeed should be put behind bars.”
Second, Modi is expected to hark back to his “sabka saath, sabka vikas” slogan by proposing a joint effort to fight poverty.
Over the next few days, officials from both sides will be talking behind the scenes to thrash out the contours of the conversation between Modi and Imran Khan in Bishkek.
What is interesting is that the conversation between India and Pakistan never really stopped, even during the Balakot air strikes on February 26 and afterwards.
Even on 27 February, the day Pakistan retaliated against the Balakot air strikes, Indian officials, speaking on behalf of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, were in touch with the Pakistani side to impress upon them that Wing Commander Varthaman’s safety was of utmost concern.
At the time, the US, China and Saudi Arabia had helped broker the return of the Wing Commander, the aforementioned Pakistani official said.