Imagine this scenario: The prime minister of India arrives in New York, his first visit to the US after electoral success. He’s scheduled to make his maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly, hold a bilateral with the US president, and essentially embark on a major image-building exercise for a new government. He does all that but the media, the travelling domestic Press and international outlets, compulsively obsess over his meeting with the leader of Pakistan. There’s a giant sucking sound, of all the oxygen being drained from that trip, as if the Indo-Pak dialogue was occurring in a vacuum.
This is precisely what happened. No, I’m no futurist gazing into late September: Almost exactly a decade before Narendra Modi marches into Manhattan, Manmohan Singh paid a call upon then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at the Roosevelt Hotel and lost control of the messaging on that visit. A year later, they met again in New York, this time at the Palace Hotel, the Indian delegation’s base. The media – your columnist among them – waited for an announcement for over four hours, sequestered in a conference room, denied even bathroom breaks. For their patience and stressed kidneys, they got a joint statement so anodyne, it seemed like it had been written by someone in their sleep. And since it was released way past midnight, it may even have been.
The cancellation of the secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan will be parsed ad nauseam. And they’ll certainly resume. There have been many U-turns on talks with Pakistan, and the countries always return to square one. But, if a bilateral between the two PMs in New York on the sidelines of this year’s United Nations General Assembly, which was apparently on the agenda, fails to materialise, Modi will have dodged a bullet.
The Pakistan contingent traditionally has handily manipulated the Indian media, especially television, as oral rhetoric plays better than printed nuance. At the 2005 meeting between Singh and Musharraf, the two made an appearance before the media as the joint statement was read out. As questions were shouted out, Musharraf grinned in anticipation of fielding them, but Singh grimaced and walked off.
The feeding frenzy over even a whiff of dialogue at this, the most high-profile of venues, has often led to drama, sometimes descending into farce. In 2010, as India’s external affairs minister SM Krishna briefly encountered his Pakistani counterpart at the UN headquarters as they waited for their chauffeured limos, a misreported agency copy led to the legend that they had met in the parking lot.
For Modi this is a global coming out party, one he wouldn’t want the Pakistanis crashing. After all, it’s been nearly 15 years since he stepped on American soil as a pracharak coordinating with community groups. In recent years, the refusal of a visa kept him away. His media managers would want the focus to remain on the main event.
He will still get plenty of opportunities to stride on the stage, from his speech at the UNGA to the summit with US President Barack Obama at the White House. There will be other encounters on the sidelines in New York. Perhaps he will finally get to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who earlier in July, opted to go to Brazil to cheer her country’s team at the World Cup semi-final, over meeting Modi who was transiting through Germany.
The current impasse between India and Pakistan will also pass. Talks will certainly resume, whatever track they may take. The derailment of a potential engagement in New York isn’t quite a train wreck as far as India’s immediate foreign policy imperatives are concerned. But if a dialogue in New York does ensue, possibly after American pressure, it will give Pakistan its preferred platform to internationalise the Kashmir issue. And the PM won’t need to take the ice bucket challenge to have cold water poured over his most-significant foreign venture yet.