After Pakistan decided to stay away from all official events in India recently, to which it was invited and was supposed to participate, the announcement that Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Sharif’s de facto foreign minister will travel to Amritsar, next door to Lahore, to attend the Afghanistan-centric Heart of Asia conference comes as a surprise.
It is possible that Aziz’s decision followed some backroom parleys that led him to decide to attend the Heart of Asia conference. Or, his government thinks Amritsar will be a good opportunity to damn India’s ‘brutalities’ in Kashmir. Anyhow there seems to be no tangible reason for the hope that his visit to Amritsar in December will lead to ‘diffusion’ in bilateral relations given the ever increasing belligerence and hostility in Pakistan against India since the Uri attack that killed 19 Indian soldiers.
The Heart of Asia is a conference which has not much to show by way of enabling Afghanistan to stand on its feet or help in solving its major problem that emanates from Pakistan. The deliberations of the conference are unlikely to interest most Indians, except perhaps the fact that the city of Golden Temple will be hosting an international conference.
It was also announced in Pakistan that no meeting with any Indian leader has been arranged for Aziz during his projected visit to Amritsar. But it should not come as a surprise if a meeting between him and an Indian leader does take place on the ‘sidelines’. It will not break the ice between the two countries.
If Aziz has to continue with the tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders meeting Indian separatists first, he might have difficulty in talking to the pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatists but he might try his luck with the Khalistanis. In response to India highlighting the oppression in Balochistan, Pakistan is trying to revive the Khalistani militancy in India.
‘Diffusion’ in India-Pakistan relations may be welcome; the question is how realistic are the chances for that at this point of time? It would have been easier to agree with the hope for a ‘thaw’ if there were even some faint signals in that direction coming from Pakistan. Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, already in deep waters over ‘Panama’ leaks, cannot do away with the anti-India card to ward off his domestic troubles.
Adding considerably to his problems is his overbearing army chief, who has reduced him to a non-entity on matters relating to defence, security and the India policy. General Raheel Sharif has been described as the strongest and most popular army chief ever in the history of Pakistan. Many Pakistanis are urging him to take over the reins of the country. Like every military men in his country, the Khaki Sharif does not want friendly relations with India. ‘Diffusion’ in relations with India is possible only if the Sharif in uniform shows the green light.
What Aziz might achieve, if he does visit India next month, is to use his brief stay in Amritsar to score diplomatic brownie points by playing the game of one-upmanship with India. He will not be the first Pakistani leader to come to India, abuse the hospitality and play a cunning political and diplomatic game which the unprepared host country watches helplessly. In recent years, it was best exemplified by the infamous Agra visit of the then dictator, Pervez Musharraf, for a summit meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The summit was a failure, as was perhaps expected. But Musharraf got a lot of mileage at Agra, even as he indulged in homilies and even rebukes in a media ‘breakfast’ interaction.
It will not require an astrologer to forecast that if Aziz talks to any Indian leader or the media in Amritsar he will preface his country’s alleged desire for ‘peace’ by referring to Kashmir and asking India to address the ‘core’ problem. Because the atmosphere in Pakistan is such that any leader returning home, especially from Indian soil, has to mention the K word loudly and spice it with some invectives.
Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that it can consider improving relations with India only after the latter hands over Kashmir to it. India thinks talks with Pakistan must be preceded by the end of Pakistani export of terror to this country.
The logjam situation is what Pakistan exploits by attacking India with aggressive rhetoric. Should he touch down at Amritsar, Aziz will blame India for the present state of bilateral relations and will in all likelihood berate India’s alleged interference in Balochistan without, of course, presenting any proof.
If India has really moved away from the earlier ‘soft’ policy towards Pakistan, then a strong response would be in order. Aziz’s contribution to the main topic of the meeting is likely to be the repeated Pakistani assertions that his country is the key to bringing stability in Afghanistan. Central Asian and the Middle East countries attending the conference may not like to dispute that position on ‘brotherly’ considerations, but this bogus claim of Pakistan has to be challenged effectively by India.
It may help that lately Afghanistan under the leadership of the once pro-Pakistan Ashraf Ghani, has become thoroughly disgusted with Pakistan and its perfidious ways. Both India and Afghanistan know that Pakistan is not going to end the export of terror to the two countries.
Aziz should not be allowed to spread the misleading claim, a standard diversionary tactics of every Pakistani diplomat, that his country is the ‘biggest victim’ of terror, the seeds of which they themselves had sown. It will be naïve to imagine that Aziz will be coming to Amritsar as a peace messenger.