It was only two months ago that foreign ministries of countries across the world were releasing statements of concern on the tensions between India and Pakistan. A terrorist attack in Kashmir, a retaliatory air strike in Pakistan, a captured pilot, his release, and then a global listing for Pakistan-based terror mastermind Maulana Masood Azhar had offered daily twists as both nations went through one of their most taut periods.
But then came the Lok Sabha election. While India’s relationship with Pakistan became an important poll plank, so consuming was the nearly two-month-long process that for a while the actual lack of ties between the two parties remained forgotten.
“Two planes were shot down on a day when (Pakistan’s) radars were not working, so I would like to ask Modi ji what he thinks would happen on a day when the radars would work,” laughed Qureshi after a committee meeting of the National Assembly on Foreign Affairs.However, Pakistan has remained a keen watcher of the process. Not only did Prime Minister Imran Khan say that he would prefer Narendra Modi to return to power, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has even reacted to Modi’s now infamous comment on clouds keeping Indian Air Force planes off the Pakistani radar.
A new high commissioner
The possibility of a new government or a fresh version of the old one coming back to power has ostensibly resulted in Pakistan sitting up straight. The country has now appointed a new High Commissioner to India — its current ambassador to France, Moin ul Haque. While doing so, the same Qureshi who had mocked Modi’s cloud-radar line, acknowledged that “New Delhi is very important” and that the appointment came after rounds of consultation with Imran. “I hope that he (Haque) will deliver,” Qureshi said in a video statement.
The Indian Express has reported that Haque has served twice in the Pakistan foreign secretary’s office, between 1997 and 1999 as deputy director and then as director between 2005 and 2007.
The report notes that Haque’s first stint coincided with the May 1998 nuclear tests and during his second, bilateral dialogues had resumed between the two countries.
Speaking to Dawn on Haque’s appointment, Qureshi said, “A new engagement between Islamabad and New Delhi could be started.”
A new national security adviser?
It is not just Indian media which is concerned with the outcome of the election. In Pakistani papers like the Express Tribune, speculations are afoot as to whether the Imran government’s active efforts to appoint a national security adviser (NSA) is a pinpointed step towards the revival of backchannel diplomacy with India. The paper has quoted official sources close to those in Pakistan’s defence department as having said that the Pakistan government is considering options on how to resume talks with India, one of which is a dedicated NSA.
In 2015, Pakistani NSA Lt General (retd) Naseer Khan Janjua and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval were instrumental in breaking the ice, notes PTI. The two had held meetings in Bangkok, leading to the agreement between the two foreign ministers, for the resumption of composite dialogue.
NSAs, most often retired military officials in Pakistan, may prove useful in holding shotgun meetings with their counterparts, in relatively innocuous locations — something the government’s top leaders cannot do. From de-escalation of tensions to discussions on ground realities, an NSA can prove to be an essential addition to Imran’s repeated attempts at fruitful dialogue.
A face-t0-face meeting
She will, in the course of the meet, also come face to face with Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The last time such a meeting between the two foreign ministers could have taken place was the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meet at Abu Dhabi, where India had been invited to address the gathering for the first time. However, that was March and ties were so fraught between the two nations that Quereshi boycotted the plenary.On Tuesday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will attend a two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek, during which several pressing issues including the threat of terrorism are expected to be discussed.
Sushma, in her address, had asserted that the war against terrorism, which was destabilising regions and putting the world at great peril, was not against any religion.
There are no bilateral talks scheduled between India and Pakistan. Sputnik Internationalquoted a diplomatic source who said the interaction will be limited to issues like terrorism and the Afghanistan peace process.
While it is unlikely that potential talks — whether official ones or those held ‘on-the-sidelines’ — between Sushma and Qureshi in the backdrop of the SCO meet will result in any major changes in the equation between the two countries, it does set the stage for a government heads’ meeting of the SCO in the middle of June, where Imran Khan and whoever is the head of the Indian government then will meet.