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Jaishankar should watch Pathaan. He is working on Modi’s ambition to be leader of South Asia

Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan is an unabashed attempt at taking another look at India-Pakistan relationship. The film’s success only demonstrates India’s soft power.

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Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan has variously been characterised as the return of the Indian Muslim, an assertion of India’s middle-of-the-road “live and let live” way of life, and a stinging reply to

Hindutva groups believing that “Pakistan” is a synonym for everything gone wrong in the subcontinent.

But the fact is that the blockbuster hit Pathaan is really an AfPak film — an abbreviation for Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries joined at the hip on India’s western frontier — and in fact serves to underline what External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said at the Marathi translation of his book over the weekend.

“Pandavas could not choose [their] relatives, we can’t choose our neighbours,” he said. He went on to add that he hoped good sense would prevail in Pakistan, but that, admittedly, “is only a hope.”

But since Bollywood lives, correction thrives, on hope, Pathaan is not just a celebration of humanity in general, but about two more things. First, not only that India cannot choose its neighbours, but that India’s relationship with its neighbours is between the people, not governments.

Shah Rukh Khan’s orphan character gets his name ‘Pathaan’ in the movie after saving an Afghan village — presumably in southern Afghanistan where the majority population would be of Pashtun, or Pathan, ethnicity — from a missile attack, which means that he is, now, family. The Afghan village later plays a key role in helping him, the good guy, in his mission to demolish the bad ones.

Of course the bad guys are Pakistani, led by an awful general who wants the Pakistan flag to be hoisted in Kashmir. But then there is Rubai Mohsin, the long-legged ISI agent, who realises just in time that her loyalty to her intelligence outfit cannot outweigh her duty to humanity. Voila! She joins Pathaan in his mission. Just in time for Shah Rukh to echo John F. Kennedy down the ages: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

I don’t know if minister Jaishankar has seen Pathaan or not, but like all diplomats in the business of making policy on the basis of what is, and not what should be, he is implementing the Narendra Modi government’s deep-seated ambition to be seen as the leader of South Asia, especially as India leads the G-20 this year.

Leading South Asia is India’s natural inclination. Every government strives to do it. Every government also knows that “the people” expand or contract official ties. So Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook the bus yatra to Pakistan in 1999 and went there again in 2004. Manmohan Singh almost went to Pakistan in 2008. Singh’s government brokered talks between Nepal’s Maoists and the other political parties in 2005, in what became known as the 12-point agreement.

When things go south, it is the same people who hurt first. When the Manmohan Singh government could not take the taunting of then-opposition BJP anymore, it denied visas to four Pakistani singers for the music launch of film Cocktail in 2012. In the wake of the Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama attacks, the Modi government totally shut down the relationship. Very, very few visas have been issued to Pakistani citizens since.

Also read: Pathaan is Shah Rukh Khan’s love letter to his fans. And RSVP for boycott gang

Pathaan and lessons for MEA

The window has just opened a sliver, but only just. The invitation to Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting has come hand in hand with India seeking to “modify” the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan had complained that it wasn’t getting enough water from the Indus basin because India was building dams. Brokered by the World Bank in 1960, the Treaty has stood the test of time. It is now being tested by the Modi government to see if it has outlived its utility.

The Modi government’s outreach to its other neighbours in recent days has been quite interesting. Jaishankar travelled to the Maldives and Sri Lanka in late January. In Sri Lanka, he announced India’s support to Colombo’s debt restructuring facility, and in the Maldives he skirted capital Male to inaugurate new projects in the northern part of the country.

Certainly, India is worried that the bad blood between President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Speaker Mohamed Nasheed will impact elections in the country slated for later this year. Solih has just won the party primary against his more charismatic opponent Nasheed.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra travelled to Bhutan to meet the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk and Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. Kwatra’s visit to Thimphu came days after Bhutanese officials travelled to the southern Chinese city of Kunming to participate in a three-step roadmap to take forward border talks between the two countries. Bhutan and India share the closest of ties, but New Delhi will surely be watching the evolving relationship between Thimphu and Beijing closely, especially in the wake of the 2017 Doklam crisis.

Does all this mean that 2023 could become India’s Year of South Asia? Truth is, no one needs hold their breath about the revival of SAARC, the multilateral organisation that has kept some regional conversations afloat since 1985.

The success of Pathaan notwithstanding, hard domestic politics dictates the continuation of Modi’s muscular approach to Pakistan. Even noted Carnatic musician T.N. Krishna’s tweet stating his determination to play music in Pakistan this year – just like he did at the height of the Sri Lanka crisis in Jaffna – has faded into the woodwork.

And yet anything is possible these days. Remember the 2016 film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (in which the protagonist Anushka Sharma hails from Pakistan, falls in love with an Indian boy, Ranbir Kapoor, in London), and how BJP trolls forced Karan Johar to apologise and change the venue of an event in the movie from Lahore to Lucknow?

Johar no longer uses Pakistani actors like he once did, but the fact remains that Pathaan is an unabashed attempt at, at least partially, taking another look at the India-Pakistan relationship. The movie’s amazing success not only demonstrates India’s soft power — a subject much discussed in the Ministry of External Affairs – but could well make the MEA learn a few things from it.

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

(Edited by Prashant)

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