Opening of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN
By: Shruthi Rajkumar, Columnist
As the 73rd UN General Assembly (UNGA) session unfolds, so does a familiar but fatigued drama of India-Pakistan animosity with insults, counter-insults, and a bitter rehashing of pointed fingers over the “terrorism” and “Kashmir” stalemate-inducing cards. It is imperative for both states to display the political will and determination necessary to overcome this deadlock and make progress towards long-term objectives of peace and greater cooperation in the region.
The latest spectacle involved the scheduling and subsequent cancellation of a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of the countries on the sidelines of the UNGA. Following an incident that killed three Indian policemen in Kashmir and Pakistan releasing a series of stamps glorifying individuals declared by India to be terrorists, a statement issued by the official spokesperson for the Indian Minister of External Affairs said “it is obvious that behind Pakistan’s proposal for talks to make a fresh beginning, the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been revealed to the world in his first few months in office. Any conversation with Pakistan in such an environment would be meaningless.” [i] In response, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had tweeted his disappointment at India’s “arrogant and negative” response and added more personal insults against his Indian counterpart. [ii]
While much of the media including (especially) social media have fixated on this rhetorical back and forth, it is important to situate these developments within the domestic political contexts of both the countries. India’s decision to withhold talks can easily be viewed as reiterating the ruling party’s right-wing agenda ahead of the approaching general election in 2019. All the elections in South Asia so far this year have witnessed the voting out of incumbents including Nepal, Pakistan, and Maldives. While the current BJP government appears stable for the time being, regional trends indicate a changing political environment that could bring a fresh set of opportunities and challenges with respect to regional power dynamics. Pakistan’s PTI, just coming out of its big electoral win, would likely be cautious, given the considerable influence of the Pakistani Army, which benefits from controlled hostility between Pakistan and India. [iii] In the past, attempts at peace talks by high-level officials have invariably been followed by a state-sponsored terror attack or a border skirmish indicating the Pakistani Army’s ability and willingness to go to great lengths to disrupt negotiations for peace. [iv] India has at the moment effectively assented to these wishes by putting off peace talks.
The objective, however, should be to look and move beyond the politicization of peace and/or the normalization of violence. First, the customary trading of barbs by the diplomats should not be allowed to derail the progress that has been made. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first leaders to extend a message of congratulations to Imran Khan after the declaration of the election results. A ministerial delegation from Pakistan held cordial talks with India’s Minister of External Affairs at the funeral of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first interaction at that level in a long time. [v] While not substantial in themselves, these acts are indicative of the possibility to deploy and the potential long-term usefulness of careful diplomacy.
Second, and arguably more importantly, India and Pakistan should choose to deliberately transcend these bilateral hurdles, especially in multilateral forums. It is not in either state’s interest to have its engagement in a forum like the UNGA overrun by petty diplomatic squabbling with each other. India and Pakistan have been crucial players in the international stage on many an occasion in the past. Pakistan was a bridge between the United States and China at a time when they did not have diplomatic engagements with each other. [vi] India, even as a newly independent state coming out of rampant poverty and underdevelopment, was instrumental in spearheading initiatives like the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War era. But now, both the states seemed to be concerned only about a few issues and each other instead of initiating alternate ways to deal with the emerging structural transformations in the global order. India, for one, is uniquely poised to respond to the growing departure from multilateralism reiterated by Trump and others in the West. Given this environment of traditional leaders of globalization looking inward and India’s growing interest in looking outward and to play a more decisive role in the international system, it should use these opportunities to build new partnerships and avenues of strategic cooperation. Continued bickering between India and Pakistan relegates both countries to merely regional power status – to transcend that barrier and graduate to global leadership, both countries must leave the petty issues highlighted at the UNGA behind.
[i] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Statement by Official Spokesperson on meeting between External Affairs Minister and Pakistan Foreign Minister in New York”, September 21, 2018.
[ii] Imran Khan, Twitter post, September 22, 2018.
[iii] Elizabeth Roche, “As Pakistan goes to polls, it’s more of the same for India”, LiveMint, July 24, 2018.
[iv] Shashank Joshi, “Pathankot Attack: India-Pakistan peace talks derailed?”, BBC News, January 7, 2016.
[v] Suhasini Haidar, “Cutting through the white noise”, The Hindu, September 27, 2018.
[vi] Office of the Historian, State Department of the United States of America, “Rapprochement with China, 1972”.