Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. Photo: NDTV
Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. Photo: NDTV

Judging by the unsavory exchanges between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers at the recent United Nations General Assembly, the already deeply troubled bilateral relationship has reached a new low.

What immediately preceded the UN session was bad enough. Less than 24 hours after agreeing to a bilateral meeting of foreign ministers on the margins of the General Assembly, India canceled, citing the killing of three Indian police officers on their shared border and Pakistan’s issuance of a postage stamp honoring a slain Kashmiri terrorist.

But such border incidents – including both killings and retaliation – are not new; several have already occurred this year. And while the stamps were certainly an unpleasant manifestation of Pakistan’s chronic glorification of anti-Indian violence, they were issued in July, a month before Prime Minister Imran Khan – whose new government proposed the bilateral meeting – was even sworn in.

The Indian Foreign Ministry’s allegation that these incidents exposed Khan’s “true face” was a mere fig leaf – and a churlish one at that. In fact, with a general election six months away and five state elections set to take place before the end of this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government simply did not want a meeting with Pakistan at a politically sensitive moment.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to have decided to contest the upcoming elections on a hardline Hindutva platform. Hindutva, the ideology of Hindu chauvinism, prides itself on hostility toward Muslims in India, as well as toward Pakistan. Smiles and handshakes in New York would not have served that strategy.

This reading is reinforced by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s use of the UN podium to deliver a political campaign speech in Hindi to BJP voters back home. In it, she lambasted Pakistan and mentioned Modi twice as many times as she referred to India, on whose behalf she was supposed to be speaking.

This is not to say that Khan’s government has been a paragon of diplomacy. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has taken a bizarre and damaging approach, alleging, for example, that Pakistan is under siege from Indian “terrorism,” a phenomenon that no objective international analyst has yet recognized.

Qureshi also blames India for a 2014 attack on an army school in Peshawar that has been credibly attributed to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a home-grown terrorist group waging war on the Pakistani government. Given that the one government the Pakistani Taliban hate more than Pakistan’s is India’s, the idea that they were doing India’s bidding on Pakistani soil is both grotesque and fatuous.

Can the supposedly responsible governments of two nuclear-armed countries sink any lower? Unfortunately, it seems entirely likely

Can the supposedly responsible governments of two nuclear-armed countries sink any lower? Unfortunately, it seems entirely likely. In Pakistan, Khan’s government, anointed by the Pakistani military, will progressively consolidate power. In India, election fever is heating up under a government that has not hesitated to politicize the military and often substitutes marketing for tangible achievements.

For example, the BJP constantly boasts of cross-border raids on terrorist camps in Myanmar and Pakistan. Last month, it celebrated the anniversary of one such raid across the Line of Control in Kashmir, despite the fact that the raid had no lasting geo-strategic impact. Cross-border terrorist incursions, aided and abetted by the Pakistani military, have continued in the two years since.

Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts are wondering whether India under Modi has a Pakistan policy at all. After demonizing Pakistan in his campaign speeches, Modi invited his then-counterpart Nawaz Sharif to Delhi for his 2014 inauguration, raising hopes – reinforced by exchanges of shawls, saris, and even sentimental letters to each other’s mothers – of a new dawn in bilateral relations.

Less than two months later, India and Pakistan were exchanging artillery fire across the still-sensitive border. Talks between their respective foreign ministers were called off when the Pakistanis proposed meeting Indian Kashmiri separatist leaders – a common practice, to which earlier Indian governments had responded with official indifference.

That November, at the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Nepal, Modi pointedly stared at a brochure instead of greeting Sharif, though it was later revealed that the two leaders met privately in a hotel suite belonging to an Indian businessman.

The pattern has repeated itself throughout Modi’s tenure. One day, the ruling party avers that talks and terror don’t go together, and that Pakistan cannot be rewarded with a visit from Indian leaders until it makes progress on punishing the perpetrators of 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. The next day, Modi is winging impulsively to Lahore to attend a family celebration at Sharif’s home, sending India’s surprised high commissioner scurrying late to the airport to receive his boss.

Shortly after that impromptu visit to Lahore in late 2015, seven Indians were killed by Pakistani militants at the Pathankot Air Force Base in India’s Punjab state, putting the bilateral relationship on ice again. More attacks from Pakistan have followed, bringing more inconsistent and episodic responses from India, typified in the latest UN setback.

It is true that many Indian officials have found it frustrating to talk peace to a civilian government that – because the military calls the shots in Pakistan – seems unable or unwilling to deliver on any commitments. But the fact remains that India’s government lacks a cohesive policy framework for negotiating the relationship with its most turbulent neighbor, much less a compelling vision for lasting peace.

Modi’s is a foreign policy by whim, not by design. As India’s election campaigns heat up, one can only hope that those whims – and the incendiary rhetoric that often accompanies them – do not ignite a conflagration.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian minister of state for external affairs and minister of state for human resource development, is currently chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and a member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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