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India shouldn’t get caught in Pakistan’s cheap verbal war. Big nations can’t afford anger

As India prepares to lead the world’s most powerful economies as G20 president, it has still not been able to shake the monkey called Pakistan off its back.

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What does the tu-tu-main-main’, or the embarrassing exchange between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and a man half his age, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, on the margins of the UN General Assembly last week, signify?

Much has been written about the reactions in both countries to the second-hand face-off between the two gentlemen, primarily in support of their respective politicians. While many deductions have been made, one thing is for sure: As India prepares to lead the world’s most powerful economies as president of the G20, it has still not been able to shake the monkey called Pakistan off its back.

Of course, the stakes for Pakistan are much lower. It doesn’t take much for Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto or its several army chiefs over the years to talk about India as the mortal enemy from which Pakistan must be saved. We all know that Pakistan’s military runs the country’s India policy and derives its legitimacy from insisting that it will protect the motherland from India, despite losing three wars and one conflict (Kargil).

All this is old Pakistan hat. What is new is the analysis by Pakistani political observers of Bhutto Junior’s tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, where he called him the “butcher of Gujarat” in his best, clipped Oxford accent — the Ministry of External Affairs has since described this as a “new low”—and largely targeted at the domestic audience in Pakistan.

Pakistan is so caught up in its own domestic quagmire of a faltering economy, blowback from the Taliban on its western front, discredited relations with the US and other Western nations—notwithstanding the patronage of China—that the criticism against India is an attempt to distract the people, just like young Bhutto’s grandfather, former President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, did 50 years ago, when Pakistan was losing the 1971 war to India.

So far, so good. The question that follows is why India is even bothering to respond to a failing stat like Pakistan. If Pakistan’s junior foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar says something about India exporting terrorism, should Jaishankar lower himself to playing the gallery by reiterating for the nth time that Pakistan is the “epicentre of terrorism” and that it “glorifies Osama bin Laden as a martyr”?

Also read: Bilawal’s remark shows Pakistan’s old view hasn’t upgraded with Modi’s new India

India must ignore Pakistan’s antics

One could argue that Jaishankar is also playing to the domestic audience. And because Pakistan has been declared the enemy by the Modi government, especially since the 2019 Balakot airstrike, Jaishankar is only following the party line.

Instead of taking the high moral ground with Pakistan, India is getting involved in a ‘chakravyuh’ (maze) of Pakistan’s making. As I have argued before, the costs are particularly low for Pakistan. It is luring India into the whirlpool, hoping in the bargain that at least some of the mud will stick, thereby endangering India’s carefully crafted reputation of being an open, democratic and secular republic.

Pakistan’s attempted low-cost war to damage India, particularly Modi and his BJP, will, for the moment at least, be ignored by the rest of the world. India, for example, would not have been awarded the G20 presidency if it didn’t show promise and potential. Moreover, there is the China factor. The world recognises that India, however poor and riven by domestic challenges, must be drawn into an anti-China containment.

India’s leadership of the G20—which the Modi government must acknowledge is also, in large part, due to the efforts of former PM Manmohan Singh and the Congress party—is a national project. It means that India is leading the G20, and not just the BJP. It would behove the ruling party’s credentials to bring back foreign policy to the non-partisan sphere, from China to Pakistan and everything in between.

It is unfortunate that this is not likely to happen anytime soon. Domestic politics is too broken for that. The fact that Congress has brought in Jaishankar’s son and attempted to link him to a funding initiative by China also constitutes a new low, especially since family members of politicians have always been beyond the ‘lakshman rekha.’

Also read: There’s a reason why Pakistanis are silent on Bilawal Bhutto comment on Modi

Lessons from G20 leadership

India must also learn some sobering lessons from its leadership of the G20. First, it must deal with the damaging potential of Pakistan, otherwise it will expend far more energy in rebutting its many absurd statements in international fora.

Second, big nations that seek regional leadership cannot afford to be angry or irritated. India cannot wish away Pakistan or punish the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) because it contains Pakistan, and, instead, focus on the Bay of Bengal community on India’s eastern seaboard.

As India moves toward 75 years of celebrating the Constitution and being a fully functional secular republic, it must become comfortable in its own skin. Let Bilawal Bhutto or anyone else say what they want; it’s not going to change the fact that India is a far more serious player on the international front.

If PM Modi and his government spend some time looking at the reasons for Pakistan’s attention-seeking behaviour—and understand that it is possible to find new solutions to the embittered twin conundrum—then India will become a more complete leader as it shepherds the G20 over the next 11 months.

The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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