Amid the cacophony of busy traffic on Mathura Road and birds chirping in the lawns of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit stirred a hornet’s nest. In a moment of candour, rarely displayed by serving envoys, Basit said that, according to him, the bilateral dialogue process is “suspended”.
Well, what he said is correct. Let’s look at the facts. A week after the Pathankot attack, the Indian government announced that the two foreign secretaries had agreed to reschedule their imminent meeting to the “very near future”. The expectation was that it would be held shortly — since neither side wanted to lose the momentum generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on December 25.
So, after the initial furore over the terror attack would die down and Pakistan showed some concrete action against the Pathankot planners and plotters, it was expected that the two sides would convene the meeting of the foreign secretaries and move forward on the comprehensive bilateral dialogue process — which was announced by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in early December on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.
The understanding was that the NSAs would deal with the investigations on the Pathankot terror attack but wouldn’t let them spill over into the bilateral dialogue process. In that sense, it would be insulated from the ups and downs of the relationship.
But, almost three months down, there has been no movement on the foreign secretary-level talks. In fact, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar had linked terror and talks in early March at the Raisina Dialogue, when he said that in the aftermath of a terror attack, “if you ask me what is the priority, dealing with terror or diplomatic dialogue, then the answer is obvious.” This was the only occasion when the Indian government had drawn a link between talks and action against those who carried out the terror attack.
In the last three months, each time the Indian foreign ministry was asked about the foreign secretary-level talks, the spokesperson would state its position that the two sides were in touch with each other. Basit broke away from the diplomatese and stated the facts upfront. He did not mince his words, and called a spade a spade.
Basit’s other point about “reciprocity” when it comes to the NIA team’s visit to Pakistan is where he is off the mark. On at least two occasions during his interaction on Thursday evening, he repeated the same argument that the investigations are about “cooperation” and not “reciprocity”. It was a carefully chosen distinction that he drew. The Indian side has hit back that the terms of reference — mutually agreed before the Pakistan joint investigation team’s visit — were for a reciprocal visit. This was conveyed by the Indian high commission to the Pakistan foreign ministry before the JIT visited. So Basit is wrong to eliminate the notion of “reciprocity”.
Having said that, the Pakistan envoy is a consummate diplomat and is depending on wordplay. His insistence on “cooperation” in investigations does not rule out a reciprocal visit by the NIA. So, in his carefully worded comment, he has left the door ajar.
But why has the Pakistan envoy stirred the pot? The answer lies in the recent turn of events in Pakistan and at the UN. Kulbhushan Jadhav, the alleged R&AW agent who was recently arrested in Balochistan, is seen as a prize catch by the Pakistan agencies and the government machinery. While for years, India vehemently refuted Islamabad’s claims on R&AW’s activities inside Pakistan, Islamabad — and Rawalpindi — have now got what they perceive to be clinching evidence.
In the battle of perception on the global platform, Islamabad — which in recent years linked the Samjhauta blasts with the Mumbai terror attack — has now found a new tool in its kit. This was evident from the fact that Jadhav’s case was cited by the Pakistan envoy in his opening remarks, which set the tone for the media interaction on Thursday.
Also, with Beijing blocking India’s bid to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist at the UN, Islamabad once again feels emboldened. This has led to a situation where Basit is articulating what the military and security establishment in Pakistan wants him to say. That has led to a situation where the Pakistan high commissioner is both right and wrong.