Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has been at the centre of several crises that have altered India-Pakistan relationship in the recent years.
He was the foreign minister during the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks in 2008. His second stint, this time in the Imran Khan government, has been rocked by the Pulwama attack, the Balakot airstrikes and now the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir.
But these moments of tensions appear to have done nothing to sharpen his diplomacy in the times of crisis.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi seems to have no concrete policy to deal with the situation arising out of revocation of Article 370. He appears to be more preoccupied with bombastic and vituperative tweets and press conference limelight. His Kashmir statements are in contrast to those of seasoned Indian diplomats, such as S. Jaishankar, Vijay Gokhale and Syed Akbaruddin, who have managed the Kashmir fallout internationally with backroom finesse and deft.
No longer on the back foot
Qureshi has, in recent months, followed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s doctrine of throwing loud tantrums to draw attention. This includes exaggerated claims of genocide in Kashmir, painting a Palestine-like scenario, and even playing the victim card alleging impending Indian aggression.
His incendiary rage in the last few weeks is in sharp contrast to the mild demeanour he displayed in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks. What has not changed in all these years is his ability to peddle half-truths in impeccable anglicised English. Except Qureshi is no longer on the back foot this time as the crisis around Article 370 shows.
Qureshi has even acknowledged that the world isn’t paying attention to Kashmir like it used to. He lamented that despite repeatedly mentioning Kashmir to the global community and the publicity stunts (such as getting Pakistani citizens to stand and observe Kashmir Hour) to rake up the Kashmir cause, Islamabad hasn’t been able to move the needle.
The global community hasn’t really bought Islamabad’s championing of the human rights cause in its geopolitical quest for Kashmir. Qureshi said that Pakistan pledges to “guarantee the rights” of minorities and protect temples, churches and gurdwaras. Given that Islamabad has long abdicated the same rights for its minorities – Balochis, Pakthuns, Shias, Ahmadis, Parsis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – there are no takers for his pitch.
The 2008 crisis
Many in India remember Qureshi from another point of crisis – the Mumbai terror attacks. Back in November 2008, then foreign minister Qureshi was getting ready to address a press conference in India even as the security forces were fighting the terrorists in Mumbai.
Before Qureshi’s presser could start, he received a phone call from his Indian counterpart at that time – Pranab Mukherjee – who insisted that he must leave the country. Qureshi reportedly insisted that he could continue, but Mukherjee was firm.
Over the next few weeks, Qureshi went on the defensive, battling India’s dossier-for-dossier avalanche with the usual clichéd Rawalpindi/Islamabad ripostes along the lines of ‘India hasn’t given us enough proof’ or ‘it takes time to process the evidence in a legal setting such as this’.
Qureshi has long been dubbed as a prime minister-in-waiting. He was overlooked for the coveted post when his former party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), won the elections of 2008. But then the 26/11 attacks happened. And in the aftermath of the Raymond Davis incident, Qureshi was sacked.
‘A parody of diplomacy’
A recent Op-ed in the Pakistani daily Dawn excoriated Imran Khan and Qureshi by saying that “the latest crisis has badly exposed the amateurishness of our leadership in dealing with critical issues”. The article rebuked Qureshi’s penchant for soundbites and said he had “made a parody of diplomacy”. His need to say something on everything at every moment through every medium he can find has turned “serious matters into political gimmickry”.
Qureshi’s bombastic announcement in the National Assembly that Islamabad would suspend bilateral ties with New Delhi accentuates his ‘style over substance’ approach. This, given that trade between the two countries is negligible and Pakistan has never given India an MFN status, despite the latter having previously done so. The same speech saw him asking his fellow Assembly members to cheer ‘Kashmir Banega Pakistan’, after parroting lines on Kashmir’s right to self-determination.
He recently attended the wedding of controversial filmmaker/newscaster Hamza Ali Abbasi, a known India-baiter who has interviewed and praised Hafiz Saeed. It’s no wonder that one foreign policy commentator remarked that “Pakistan army wishes it had picked someone smarter”.
Shortly after the Balakot airstrike, Qureshi committed a faux pas in an interview by saying that his government was in touch with Jaish-e-Mohammed, the UN-proscribed terror group. His incessant habit of making truculent remarks was on display even when the Indian team wore military caps in honour of the security personnel killed in Pulwama. Had this been against Pakistan, on Pakistani soil, perhaps, there could have been a case. However, this was at a home game in Ranchi against Australia, but Pakistan and Qureshi’s churlishness were there for all to see.
Achilles’ heel exposed
But it is not just Qureshi. Even Pakistan finds itself in a bind today, with none of its Gulf and Islamic allies regurgitating the old lines on Kashmir. First, the United Arab Emirates stated that the abrogation of Article 370 was India’s internal matter. Adding more salt to Islamabad’s inflamed Kashmir wound, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan honoured Prime Minister Modi with the UAE’s highest civilian award. All this as Khan and the entire establishment continues its Twitter backlash. Pakistan’s flawed policy of homogenising Islamic nations to kowtow to Islamabad’s position has exposed its Achilles’ heel, a position that Qureshi conceded to.
Qureshi isn’t like his predecessors. He doesn’t exhibit statesman-like qualities the way Khurshid Kasuri or Sartaz Aziz did. Neither does he seem as amiable as Hina Rabbani Khar, who succeeded him as the foreign minister in 2011. In fact, he has long been seen as a Kashmir hawk. But the latest crisis has exposed his inadequacies only too well. Since Modi and Amit Shah’s 5 August decision, his talons have been out; will his wings be clipped too like last time?
The author is a former business and international news reporter with Channel NewsAsia and was based in Singapore. He is currently based in the US and is a two-time TEDx speaker and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts. He tweets @Akshobh. Views are personal.