One week before the International Monetary Fund postponed the review of Pakistan’s economic situation, halting the release of a $1 billion loan tranche, the country’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi formally appealed to all the leaders in South Asia to participate in the SAARC summit, which has been overdue since 2016.
If India wants to join virtually, let it do so, Qureshi said at a press conference, but let it not stand in the way of the summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation being held, he added.
India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi cold-shouldered the appeal, saying there had been “no material change” in the situation since 2014 – basically, Pakistan had done nothing to stop cross-border terrorism. The Pakistani foreign office spokesperson was quick to respond. Bagchi’s statement, Asim Iftikhar said, was “false,” “partisan” and “motivated.”
But if one cuts out the predictable noise from both countries and sifts through the motivations and the timing of the invite, it’s easy to see that both India and Pakistan are already weighing a decision on holding the SAARC summit — which means India is considering its options to participate.
In fact, I would argue, the sound and fury from both capitals is necessary to cloud the ongoing debate in Delhi on whether and why India should participate in such a summit; and short of a big bang that throws off the best-laid plans of India’s decision-makers, the pros are already beginning to outweigh the cons.
Let me give you eight reasons why.
Pakistan has little choice
First, note that Qureshi reiterated the invitation to all regional leaders from the pulpit of a press conference and that this invite carried no preconditions. There was not one word about Kashmir nor any attendant language about the need for India to return to the pre-Article 370 position.
In fact, considering Pakistan has been fulminating in the mouth about the revocation of Article 370 – ironically, an Article that it doesn’t recognise, since the Pakistani State has refused to accept the Instrument of Accession of J&K into India in 1947 – Qureshi was significantly quiet about the matter at the press conference.
India can “join virtually,” Qureshi said, “if it doesn’t want to come to Pakistan.” But there was no hint at all of Pakistan’s alleged displeasure over the Narendra Modi government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir or any condemnation of its Hindutva credentials.
Second, the question remains as to why Qureshi decided to turn a blind eye to India’s decisions in Kashmir in August 2019. The answer is that the Pakistan Army, which is the most powerful player in Pakistan, believes that it’s time to let bygones be bygones and get a move on.
The Pakistan Army and its chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa — who retires this year, but could be seeking an extension — is watching the situation within and without. Within, the Pakistan economy is in deep trouble — its current account deficit is soaring, it has borrowed heavily from friendly nations like China, UAE and Saudi Arabia, and now it has asked the IMF to defer the loan it seeks because it has failed in providing assurances that it can get its economic act together.
The writing on the wall is clear : Pakistan needs to open up the economy to foreign trade and investment, including to its big neighbour, India, if it has to start balancing its books. This means the Kashmir issue must take a back seat, at least for the moment.
Third, this realisation on the part of Pakistan’s establishment has been on the anvil for at least one year. Remember that the two National Security Advisors — Ajit Doval and Moeed Yusuf — held back-channel talks at the time, which gave rise to peace and quiet on the LoC and were supposed to have led to Pakistan agreeing to restart trade with India. A last-minute hitch didn’t allow the latter to happen.
One year has since passed; the economic situation in Pakistan has become worse. Loans to friendly countries remain. Rawalpindi is in greater hock with China. The Pakistan establishment knows it needs to normalise relations with its enemy, India, sooner than later.
India’s commanding position
Fourth, this is also a good time for the Modi government to graciously accept and reciprocate Pakistan’s gesture of goodwill. It has got what it wanted — the integration of J&K into the Indian Union; Islamabad has not been able to generate much international condemnation on the revocation of Article 370 besides some noises by its patron, China, at the UN Security Council in 2019.
Fifth, India can put together a slew of asks in response to agreeing to go to Pakistan to participate in the SAARC summit — an end to cross-border terrorism, shutting down infiltration and keeping the LoC quiet, and action on the 2008 Mumbai attacks. For the moment, India has the upper hand and should exercise leverage.
Sixth, the Modi government knows that it cannot forever postpone holding the SAARC summit — a time will come when the current strategy of “no talks until cross-border terrorism comes to an end” will stop paying dividends and will become counter-productive. Better to get off the moral high ground, declare victory and start talking to Pakistan.
Moreover, Nepal is fretting about handing over the chairmanship of SAARC to Pakistan – no point further antagonising Kathmandu and the rest of the region India claims to lead.
Seventh, PM Modi has been to Pakistan before; to the astonishment of the world and to the people of India and Pakistan, he travelled there in December 2015 to attend then-PM Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding.
So, Modi can easily go again – the temperature must be right, of course, something that is easy for two countries well-versed in the art of falling in and out of love, to easily achieve. Imran Khan knows that he is hardly in the driver’s seat — he couldn’t, for example, even get his own man to stay as the spokesperson of the Army and ISI.
And eighth, India realises that it must assert itself to counter China in the neighbourhood, both bilaterally as well as regionally. The last can only be done if all the leaders meet at a summit.
Which brings me to the last point: If the Pakistan Army is Pakistan’s most powerful institution, isn’t it perhaps time for India to open direct talks with them?
Still, all this so-called return to normalcy is only possible if both India and Pakistan reinstate their high commissioners in both capitals — remember, Pakistan expelled India’s high commissioner after the 2019 revocation of Article 370, and recalled its own.
So watch this space. Once elections in several Indian states, including the crucial one in Uttar Pradesh, are out of the way, New Delhi’s attention will return to this all-important decision in its neighbourhood. It will then be time to plot the future.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)