Choosing not to overfly Pakistan, despite having to take a detour, solidified the impression that India was not yet prepared to engage Pakistan

by KC Singh
(Former Secretary in the external affairs ministry)

Barely two months after Narendra Modi’s historic re-election, salient diplomatic challenges are surfacing. Two immediately confronting the government involve relations with Pakistan and the United States.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Bishkek last month, Mr Modi gave Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan the cold shoulder, avoiding even an informal chat on the sidelines. Choosing not to overfly Pakistan, despite having to take a detour, solidified the impression that India was not yet prepared to engage Pakistan. This could be to avoid showing indecent haste in engaging a nation pilloried with deliberate vehemence for over a month as a part of BJP’s electoral strategy. It may also be because the government has yet to devise a post-Balakot framework for conducting relations with a neighbour that has repeatedly betrayed the trust that three previous Prime Ministers placed in Pakistani leadership.

Be that as it may, three developments are likely to impact future engagement with Pakistan. One is its refusal to open its skies for normal civil aviation activity for west-bound flights from India. Pakistan is unrealistically demanding that India should first withdraw its fighter planes from advanced deployment. This is a case of a non-military issue being used for achieving a strategic military objective. It is devised to impose costs on India for its Balakot attack, which opened up space for retaliatory or punitive attacks to avenge any future terrorist attacks sponsored by Pakistani state. The Modi government is unlikely to accept this linkage in the immediate future and thus Indian airlines are looking at continued revenue loss and the passengers additional and bothersome extra flying hours. India has, on the other hand, lifted restrictions on the use of its airspace by eastbound Pakistani flights. Thus a new irritant has crept into already blighted Indo-Pak relations.

A meeting over the weekend has been held to discuss the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor to enable Indian pilgrims to visit the historic Gurdwara during the celebration of the 550th birth anniversary of Sikh faith’s founder Guru Nanak. The infrastructure aspect is important but should not be reduced to competitive progress assessment. It is not a race between India and Pakistan, although it is desirable that work proceeds unhindered and gets completed in time. Meanwhile, the Government of India has banned the Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) organisation last week. The immediate provocation was the display by some Sikh boys of T-shirts with #Referendum 2020 logo at the India-New Zealand world cricket semifinal in UK. The Punjab government has been pleading for some time that there was growing nexus between Kashmiri and Sikh militants, encouraged by the Pakistani army. India will have to raise this matter with Pakistan as it does not want Kartarpur pilgrims from India to be used as guinea pigs for indoctrination. In the past Pakistan has done little to curb such activities of pro-Khalistan elements from western nations visiting Sikh holy sites in Pakistan. That in reality such ham-handed propaganda has little to no effect on pilgrims from India does not allay fears stoked by intelligence agencies of the Union government. There is a danger of Sikhs again being pitted between New Delhi and Islamabad.

An additional friction point will surface when the International Court of Justice at The Hague delivers its judgement on July 17 in India’s case seeking access to Kulbhushan Jadhav, sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court for espionage. A positive order would tantamount to rendering the verdict null and void as due process obviously had not been followed. Pakistan should logically order a fresh trial, allowing the accused a proper defence counsel. The Pakistani military would like to avoid giving consular access to Jadhav as he may recount the truth about his capture and incarceration. India has alleged he was kidnapped from within Iran, where he was running a trawler business. The one weakness in Indian arguments is lack of explanation for Jadhav carrying another passport in a Muslim name. Having learnt this, India needed to either plead it was fake or that Jadhav had in fact converted to Islam and was thus known now by his new name. On the other hand, if India loses the case, Pakistan would have an option to either carry out the sentence or keep Jadhav on death row to periodically dangle before India. Thus how the outcome is dealt with would impact the future course of Indo-Pak relations.

Meanwhile, US-Pak relations are looking up. A $6 billion International Monetary Fund financing package stands approved. PM Imran Khan has received an invite from US President Donald Trump. The two charismatic, former playboys might just hit it off. The Afghan peace deal is progressively becoming more a sell-out on Pakistan-Taliban terms than a genuine pullout deal that would stabilise Afghanistan. With the US stand-off with Iran balanced on a knife’s edge, Pakistan’s utility for the US’s geostrategic game has increased. It would be shortsighted for New Delhi to consider Pakistan a pariah unworthy of engagement.

Concomitantly, deputies of US Trade Representatives have visited India and returned after what appears to be an inconclusive outcome. President Trump is known to treat trade deals as critical to his diplomatic outreach, not the other way around. Meanwhile, Turkey has defied US, despite being a NATO ally, by receiving the first shipment of the S-400 air defence system. The US has threatened to exclude Turkey from its F-35 fighter programme if it persisted with the deal. Its reaction is awaited which would be instructive for India as it is buying the same weapons system. India-US relations are thus at an inflection point. The question arises whether a close partnership with the US leaves space for India’s defence relationship with other powers like Russia. Stephen Cohen once warned after President George W. Bush declared Pakistan a non-NATO ally that Pakistan is an ally that shall never be a friend; and India is a friend that shall never be an ally. This hair-splitting may be alien to the Trumpian worldview but defence deals and calibrated lowering of tariffs by India may buy it peace. Meanwhile, the game of balancing relations with newly emergent poles, i.e. the US and China-Russia, with Pakistan playing the spoiler, has just quickened.