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An illusion of an India-Pakistan confrontation at the UN general assembly

Like Goldilock’s porridge, Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations are today neither hot nor cold

columns Updated: Sep 30, 2017 17:20 IST
India,Pakistan,United Nations
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addresses the United Nations General assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, September 21(AFP)

The traffic in Manhattan’s lower east side has been gridlocked. It must mean the United Nations General Assembly was in session. An event associated with this time of the year has returned–India and Pakistan hurling abuse over Kashmir, terrorism and anything that caught their fancy.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said a Pakistan which is “the world’s greatest export of havoc, death and inhumanity” had also become “a champion of hypocrisy.” She had been preceded by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who used his first high-level diplomatic speech to describe India’s presence in Kashmir as the “most intense foreign military occupation in recent history.”

Then there were a series of right of reply speeches in a half-empty auditorium. Pakistan fortunately provided comic relief by brandishing the picture of an injured Palestinian girl to highlight India’s inhumanity. India, Israel – they both begin with “I,” what’s the big deal? Islamabad’s diplomats should wear red plastic clown noses in the future so they can excuse such mistakes by saying they were actually fund-raising for a charity.

Strictly speaking, all the UNGA speeches made during the Narendra Modi government have all largely consisted of long laundry lists of New Delhi’s accomplishments in Clean India, Make in India, Digital India and so on and so forth. The first two speeches, which were delivered by Prime Minister Modi, overflowed with the milk of human kindness. Pakistan was referred to in the kind of language invoked to describe a son who had strayed but would find a welcome home if he changed his ways. The second speech seemed to have been drafted by Greenpeace and included the invocation, “Keep pure! For the earth is our mother and we are her children!” Pakistan didn’t get a mention as Modi, in a sensible and statesman-like manner, played up the existential threat posed by climate change. As positive was the speech the same year by the then Pakistani leader, Nawaz Sharif. After a passing reference to Kashmir it laid out a four-point peace agenda between India and Pakistan.

When Modi made way for the foreign minister in 2016, it was a warning that the previous year’s rosy rhetoric was blackening on the edges. Terrorism was invoked in a roundabout way with references to “nations that still speak the language of terrorism” who need to be identified and held to account. A finger was wagged at Pakistan at how cross-border diplomatic engagement had been overshadowed by the bloodshed of Pathankot and Uri. The pendulum began moving southwards. Today it has entered Antarctic climes. When it comes to India-Pakistan relations, winter has already come.

Speeches before the UN General Assembly, professional diplomats will tell you, are 99% for domestic audiences and are readily ignored by the rest of the world. Most of the seats during these speech relays are filled by note-takers from the various UN missions – they are there because that’s their job. Real interest is evoked only when an American and a North Korean threaten to destroy each other and most of Northeast Asia. So when India and Pakistan hurl abuse, the proper form of textual analysis should be to ask what does each government want listeners at home to take back from all the noise.

The Pakistan trajectory of Prime Minister Modi seems evident. After initially seeking to stick any Pakistan initiative within the framework of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, Modi warmed to the “pragmatic businessman” view of Sharif. But he was frustrated by the simple fact that Sharif, by his own confession, had no say in Pakistan’s India policy. Quiet attempts to reach out to Rawalpindi’s men in khaki got nowhere. When the Pakistan military, more fixated about trying to get their Taliban proxies into power in Kabul, responded to India’s provision of helicopters to Afghanistan with Pathankot and the Line of Control became a live fire zone, the Modi government decided it was time to replace the olive branch with an iron mace. The surgical strike, some major artillery exchanges along the LoC and targeted assassinations of militants in Kashmir have become the norm. After all that, the diplomatic equivalent of four-letter language before the UN is almost a step down. With general elections due in Pakistan next year and India the year after, simple cost-benefit analysis would point to ever more use of the bully pulpit to excoriate the other side. And that would hold true for both New Delhi and Islamabad.

This hardly means war. It means more theatrics. The illusion of a peace process has been replaced with the illusion of confrontation. Even while Swaraj was holding forth, for example, the LoC and Kashmir were the quietest they have been for the past few years. Like Goldilock’s porridge, Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations are today neither hot nor cold. If all this sound and fury signifying nothing at all is ingested, it will, like the original Goldilocks, send a person into deep slumber.

There is a school that looks at Pakistan-bashing and asks whether India, with a GDP five times larger, should be wasting its time shouting from a soapbox. There is a case for this.

Modi is seen as among the most politically powerful heads of government in the world and India is wooed as a policy leader in everything from climate change to maritime security. If Indian prime ministers seem to travel too much these days, it is in large part because there is so much greater demand for them than in the past.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is remarkably friendless these days. The Persian Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, have soured of Islamabad having discovered that Pakistan was happy to take its money until actually asked to fight for these same countries. The United States has a president, Donald Trump, who, for all his other faults, is prepared to publicly call Pakistan a dishonest, two-faced spade. This was something Washington had always known but had been unwilling to act upon. The country’s only true friend today is China. However, as Islamabad is finding, Beijing is much more no-nonsense and hard-nosed in its calculations than, say, Pakistan’s earlier patron, the US.

This has helped Pakistan curb its worst instincts regarding how to hurt India. But there is no evidence it has experienced a Damascene conversion. Which is why it is not wholly unhelpful to affix labels like “Terroristan” on the country. At a time when Pakistan is restrained because of its befuddlement both at home and abroad, it is best to apply pressure through words rather than sticks and stones. Even a failing state can survive the latter but could react intemperately to the genuine damage inflicted by the latter. India can take the high road in the future, when there is a clearer diplomatic path across the western border.

First Published: Sep 30, 2017 16:43 IST