By Sushil Kutty
India in its capacity of rotating head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) invited Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to the Goa SCO on May 4-5, but India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar hadn’t decided on a bilateral with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. So much for India’s legendary ‘athithi devo bhava’ and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much bandied ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’.
Instead, Jaishankar was all set to play favourites and hold talks with SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Bilawal couldn’t fit in for historical reasons. Also, not long ago, he had called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ proving once and for all that Pakistan was a hostile neighbour!
The drone attack on the Kremlin on May 3 further distanced anything that had to do with India-Pakistan ties at the SCO. India got another chance to play prime mover-and-shaker without doing anything much concrete. That is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy template, which delivers little but which keeps the Indian Prime Minister in the limelight. Also, EAM Jaishankar has his moves perfected!
Therefore, it wasn’t likely that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would get a ‘dekho-in’ when the heavyweights were to have a go at trying to solve the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ to nobody’s satisfaction. For neighbourhood-watchers, it was interesting to watch ‘Bilawal’s Progress’ at the SCO. Goa has a lot to offer for a young man and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was probably the youngest FM at the SCO. That said, time could not weigh more heavily on Bilawal. Jaishankar had Sergey Lavrov to listen to and little time for Bilawal’s Oxford accent. The “attack” on Putin couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. “Russia-Ukraine” would dominate the Goa SCO.
Jaishankar’s bilateral with Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang was also considered interesting. The border tension was among the topics but the opposition parties, especially the Congress, could not be denied the details. If talks with China are okay, why not with Pakistan? It’s not that China is ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’, but Pakistan dacoit Gabbar.
President Xi Jinping will be at the G20 summit in July. Jaishankar is on record that the India-China relationship is “abnormal”. What has been normalized is India-Pakistan ties. After nine years of Modi, none of the major powers mentions India and Pakistan in the same breath these days. It is almost like Kashmir has been “solved”.
But lest we forget, doesn’t matter how, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto will not forget to rake up the ‘K’ word “at the international forum” and emphasize that India and Pakistan have certain uncertain issues which cannot be swept under the carpet as India would like to do and has been trying to do.
India’s neighbourhood matters for India, first and foremost. Pakistan, India’s most prominent neighbour, is hard to ignore but easy to sideline. Nine years of Modi rule hadn’t made a dent on the continuously souring India-Pakistan ties. India’s rising economic and military prowess keeps Pakistan at bay though that does not hold Pakistan back from the occasional muscle-flexing.
India’s “Neighbourhood First policy” does not include Pakistan. Even the ‘Covid Challenge’ could not bring the two neighbours together against the common enemy. Modi’s ‘Vaudeva Kutumbakam’ has no room for Pakistan. Not long ago, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called Prime Minister Narendra “Butcher of Gujarat” and reminded the United Nations that the Kashmir issue “remains unaddressed”. Bilawal Bhutto was likely to open up Pandora’s box at a presser.
Bilawal said Modi shouldn’t have hard feelings about the “Butcher of Gujarat” nomenclature because he (Bhutto) was “just talking about historical reality” little realizing that if anything bothered Modi, it was historical context. Bilawal had clarified that it wasn’t he who had invented the term ‘Butcher of Gujarat’, it was already there and everybody knew who the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ was.
In conclusion, there were more reasons why Bilawal Bhutto Zardari wouldn’t make any difference to the status quo. Bilawal’s grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had visited India, Billawal’s mother Benazir Bhutto also came, and Bilawal’s father Asif Zardari, too. None of them could make a difference.
That is because India has been playing neighbourly resentment with the Bhuttos/Zardaris. India should give Bilawal Bhutto Zardari a break. Afterall, Bilawal chose to come despite the entire Pakistani establishment, and the ecosystem, urging him to show the middle-finger to India. Even the all-powerful Pakistan Army voiced its reservations. Forget the Army, ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan criticized Bilawal’s decision, reasoning that India’s invitation to Bhutto was at the behest of the United States and that India would bend over backwards to please the US. (IPA Service)