Like a runaway train, the Imran government continues to hurtle down on the trail of policy bloopers across blunder-land. True, the latest one involving the Indian rebuke and cancellation of the proposed foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session is not of Islamabad’s making. Delhi’s reasoning – events involving the killing of a BSF soldier, and Burhanuddin Wani’s image on national stamps – is specious. It is an invention of a pre-disposed imagination working to find faults rather than to resolve serious bilateral problems.
But the real problem here is not that Delhi has cancelled the talks; it is that the Imran government jumped into the pool of complex diplomacy without wearing any floats or fathoming its depth. The result was bound to be what it turned out to be: a headlong crash to a ground that is littered with realities so obvious that even the blind can see them from a distance.
We don’t know whose bright idea it was to make such a definitive push for engagement with India at this point in time. The subject was neither part of the PTI government’s electoral promise to the nation nor fell into PM Khan’s declared national priority. It never came up during electioneering nor was it ever discussed by Imran Khan in the hundreds of interviews he gave to the media. And when he did speak on the subject, he took an unbending stand that bordered on the ‘India can take a hike’ view. His marauding media mandarins systematically picked on those who did not agree with him and dubbed his critics anti-Pakistan using Modi’s India as a national bogeyman.
Imran’s entire attack on Nawaz Sharif on the foreign policy front was constructed around the charge that Nawaz was pursuing an agenda that Modi had scripted. Even as he went to cast his vote in Islamabad his impromptu presser in the polling station was centred on the claim that India under Modi did not like him because he was a true Pakistani and by contrast Nawaz was a stooge. For someone with such a harsh outlook on Modi’s India to become a squishy, bleeding-heart peacenik in less than two months in power is something of an enigma. The more so since Delhi did not give the Imran government any reason to have such a radical change of heart.
Other than the perfunctory congratulatory letter containing a most general expression of goodwill, the policy parameters of Modi’s India have remained unchanged. Internationally, the Modi government continues to work overtime to isolate Pakistan. Regionally, it is continuing with its repression of the Kashmiris and attacks on the Line of Control and Actual Control. Even the only so-called goodwill move by the Imran government – invitation to India’s ex-cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu – became a disaster, laying bare the deeply-entrenched stereotypes about Pakistan in India.
The famous hug Mr Sidhu had with the army chief in Pakistan became an albatross around the visitor’s neck. He became a topic of cruel analyses back home and faced a barrage of traitor charges. That episode alone should have indicated to anyone interested in learning about the prevalent mood in India that this wasn’t the time to make peace overtures (hardly rocket science).
And yet a full-blown peace move was made in the shape of PM Imran Khan’s letter, which, among other things, tried to evoke Wilsonian idealism for the region. This and another letter by the foreign minister were both revealed by Delhi, against the total and scandalous silence maintained in Islamabad on the matter. Did the Imran government really think that a few lines penned in spurious hope, laced with archaic English and slipped across the border in stealth, would change India’s policy towards Pakistan? Apparently, it did think that and in so thinking it was encouraged in no less measure by the idea that a regional peace push would also ease Washington’s pressure and create space on other fronts like Afghanistan.
The folly of confusing eastern border challenges with our western front ordeals, and using one set of policy to offset trouble brewing on the other, is what lies at the heart of the Imran government’s hasty moves which now have produced a bigger mess than it had hoped to address.
Within 24 hours of celebrating the wisdom of offering a one-sided olive branch (the size of a full tree) to India, the Imran government is now forced to swing to the other extreme of cursing Delhi. What was presented in Pakistan (courtesy a compliant and pliant media) as a door of hope has now become a new iron wall of fresh hate and poison (courtesy a compliant and pliant media).
Of course, Delhi has contributed to the building of this wall. It’s naming of Pakistan’s prime minister in its cancellation of talks statement, and depicting him in dark colours is a condemnable cheap shot. But then it was always in Delhi’s interest to aggravate the bilateral equation to apply maximum pressure on Islamabad; it was for our government to ensure that Delhi’s intent was correctly judged and a policy course was proposed that fit the ground reality rather than floating in the air.
Now the situation is that Delhi has added a personal dimension to its aversion to any form of dialogue with Islamabad. Other than the mantra about cross-border terrorism, Delhi has focused the blame on the person of the prime minister of Pakistan. For any talks to come about anytime in the future, near or distant, Delhi will now have to either take these words back or the Imran government will have to swallow this personal attack to make space for peace. If neither happens, the idea is practically dead that Islamabad and Delhi – via diplomatic interface – can make South Asia become tension-free. The hope is also gone that Pakistan can have much needed elbow-room in a tight regional situation by engaging Delhi in a constructive dialogue. Delhi has taken the Imran government’s overzealous desire for a handshake as a sign of Pakistan’s weakness and has sprayed vitriol on Islamabad’s face.
This is a shattering setback, and could have been cushioned against if the Imran government had not rushed into sending sweets and flowers to Delhi. A deliberate, cautious testing of waters in India starting at the level of the high commissioners and involving the office of the foreign secretaries would have allowed a more hard-nosed assessment of the prospects of peace moves surviving decades of mistrust – and, of course, an election year in India. That did not happen.
This move, like other moves regarding Saudi Arab and even China, was conceived around cups of tea among a handful of fuzzy-headed men averse to debate and keen on quick-fixes and big headlines. Like all such men, they forgot that diplomacy is a landmine – it blows to smithereens those who stomp around it pompously and mindlessly.
The Imran government’s first few weeks in office have been harrowing as far as foreign and defence policy is concerned. Not a week has passed without some crisis or the other hitting the country in the face, creating the usual cycle of news spins and flimsy and forced public explanations. And yet there is no reflection, no stock-taking and no sense of any urgency to debate what’s wrong and where.
This speaks of decision-making chaos and total bewilderment in the corridors of power. From the prime minister’s office into the galleries of the Foreign Office there seems to run one straight line of thoughtlessness. Or incompetence. The nation should hope that these are teething problems which will soon settle down. But this ‘soon’ had better arrive soon since the missteps of today can cause big tumbles tomorrow. The government is not failing. But it sure is flailing. And beyond a certain point, it is hard to tell the difference between the two.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.