Cutting through the white noise

After a sudden and brief moment of clear signal, the ‘India-Pakistan channel’ has gone back to static, with the cancellation of talks between the two Foreign Ministers in New York this week. The Foreign Ministers will, no doubt, spar at the UN General Assembly, with a host of diplomats backing them up by exercising their right of reply to the comments made by either side. And ruling party and government spokespersons will bring up the rear in Delhi and Islamabad. The road travelled Amidst all this, however, there is space to reconsider developments of the last few months, and recast, if desired, a new way of imagining the relationship. To begin with, the cancellation last week of the meeting between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has not fundamentally changed much on the ground. The two leaders would have gone into the talks with an eye over their shoulders anyway, to gauge the domestic political impact of each gesture, smile and word during the meeting. For Ms. Swaraj, elections are around the corner in Madhya Pradesh, from where she’s a Lok Sabha MP, with the general election not far way either. For Mr. Qureshi, fresh from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s electoral win, there would have been much scrutiny at this big India-Pakistan encounter, and he’d likely have been very cautious. Second, the announcement of the talks may have been the destination, but the distance the two governments traversed in the past few weeks was equally important. Ever since Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan won the elections, New Delhi had followed a measured but consistent path of engagement with the new government, at the highest levels. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to call Mr. Khan to congratulate him after the results were declared. The day before he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Mr. Khan was part of the decision to send a ministerial delegation to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s funeral in Delhi, and the team reportedly held cordial talks with Ms. Swaraj, the first engagement at that level in some years. The government also gave clearance to former cricketer Navjot Sidhu, who is currently a minister in the Congress government in Punjab, to attend Mr. Khan’s swearing-in. (It must be noted here that amidst all the ‘white noise’ over Mr. Sidhu’s embrace of Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, there was no statement made by the Prime Minister or the Ministry of External Affairs, although members of the Cabinet from Punjab raised it with Ms. Swaraj.) Mr. Modi sent Mr. Khan a letter the same day, expressing India’s commitment to pursuing “meaningful and constructive engagement”. In his reply a month later, Mr. Khan went a step further, making a concrete proposal for a meeting between the two Foreign Ministers at the UN, which was accepted by the government a few days later, before it was abruptly cancelled.

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