India’s invitation to Imran Khan for the SCO Summit is a rare opportunity that Pakistan can ill-afford to fritter away
The announcement of the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Raveesh Kumar on 16 January that Pakistani Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan would be invited for the heads of government meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that is slated to be held in India in the autumn of this year ought ordinarily to have been viewed as routine and unremarkable. After all, when formally extended, the invitation will merely be a mandated one to the head of the government of a member-nation of an organization of which both India and Pakistan have been members since 2017. However, India – Pakistan relations have never fitted into the categorization of ordinary, and the present day status is most certainly even less so, to the extent that over the past months the bilateral relationship could quite aptly be termed as virtually non-existent. It is due to this reason that the simple announcement by India was promptly galvanized into a hot topic of discussion by regional experts and the media in both countries. The ‘reasons’ and ‘motivations’ behind the invitation being extended, whether it would be graciously accepted or spurned, and the possibility of the invitation leading to a thaw in bilateral ties were among the themes that were debated and speculated upon.
Reflecting India’s thinking on the matter, the MEA spokesperson made a conscious effort to underplay the fact that the Pakistani PM would figure among the list of invitees and sought to term it as a necessity of the practice and procedure adopted by the SCO. He said, “It is now a public knowledge that India will be hosting the SCO council of heads of government meeting later this year. The meeting is held annually at the prime minister's level and it discusses the SCO's program and multilateral economic and trade co-operation. As per the established practice and procedure within the SCO, all eight members of the SCO, as well as four observer states and other international dialogue partners will be invited to attend the meeting”.
India, in sync with the Modi government’s avowed position that “talks and terror” cannot go together, has not come across as being keen to engage Pakistan. It is merely to fulfill an obligation that is inherently intertwined with the pursuit of multilateral diplomacy that India has, against the run of play, deigned to reach out to Pakistan despite the latter falling well short of India’s stated expectation that it would take “credible, verifiable, irreversible and visible” action against terrorist infrastructure in the territory under Pakistan’s control. India is also cognizant of the fact that it is Pakistan that is smarting over recent Indian actions, especially those pertaining to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and is yearning for an opening into the door that India has slammed and secured rather firmly.
The suggestion in sections of the Pakistani media that India’s decision to invite the Pakistani PM was a consequence of the pressure exerted upon India by the recent China-initiated discussion on J&K in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) could not be further from the reality. As per media accounts that quoted representatives of countries that had participated in the UNSC meeting, the Chinese initiative proved to be a damp squib. There were no takers for China’s attempts to peddle Pakistan’s version of the J&K account, with most participants advising that the matter was best left to India and Pakistan to resolve bilaterally. India was dismissive of the whole affair, and averred that “China should reflect on a global consensus on Kashmir and avoid raising it at the United Nations”. The Pakistani daily Dawn, therefore, conveyed little more than wishful thinking when it claimed in an article on 17 January that “A day after the P-5 meeting at the UNSC advised India and Pakistan to resolve their differences bilaterally, India on Thursday said it would invite Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held in New Delhi later this year… The imprint of the UNSC nudge was evident in the Indian stance”. The harsh reality, quite the contrary, is that India could not have afforded to omit Pakistan from the SCO invitation list without such a step falling foul of other influential SCO members.
Despite the SCO meet being at least 8 months away, speculation on whether Imran Khan will accept the invitation has already begun. Reports in the media have suggested that Khan will politely decline and send one of his ministers instead. They quoted an official as saying, “Given the deterioration in India-Pakistan relationship since the airstrikes at Balakot terror camp in Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan will find it very hard to justify his visit to India. He will skip the SCO meeting. Most likely, he will send his foreign minister”. The Foreign Minister attending would not be out of place. The Indian practice has been to send its External Affairs or Defence Ministers for the SCO heads of government meetings, while the Prime Minister attends the heads of State summit. Pakistan has also, on occasions, been represented at the heads of government meetings by a minister.
There is also a view that the mode in which the invitation is physically extended by India – whether through its External Affairs Minister visiting Islamabad personally or through relatively junior official of the High Commission – would play a part. A statement attributed to a Pakistani government source seemed to suggest so too. He said, “Let the invite come first, whenever the invite comes, we will consider that in lieu of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and our bilateral relations with India at that time”.
Despite these reports suggesting that the authority to decide on participation rested with PM Imran Khan, the truth is that he will have little, if any, say in the matter. The final decision on whether Khan attends the meeting will be taken by the newly reappointed Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Recently bathed in a fresh dose of power after the Imran Khan government, aided and abetted by the equally sycophantic opposition parties, rushed through legislation that sanctified his extension, General Bajwa is definitively back at the helm. Scarred by the inability to anticipate and prevent the incursive punitive operation of the Indian Air Force deep within Pakistan in Balakot, and rattled by India’s 5 August moves in Jammu & Kashmir, General Bajwa is acutely aware of the imperative of rectifying the erosion of the Army’s image in the eyes of the average Pakistani. The route he chooses to do so – terror or talks – will dictate the decisions he takes on Pakistan’s India policy.
United States (US) President Donald Trump’s comments this week in Davos prior to his meeting with Imran Khan may have buoyed General Bajwa, but he would be well advised to consider Trump’s words dispassionately. Trump had said, “We are talking about Kashmir and in relation to what is going on with Pakistan and India and if we can help — we certainly will be helping. We’ve been following that and watching it very very closely”. The reality, though, is that Trump does not seem to mean much when he reels off statements such as this, nor does he display any seriousness in walking the talk thereafter. That explains why Trump has made offers to “mediate” or “help” in the J&K issue as many as 4 times in less than a year. He has then gone on to speak India’s language on J&K being a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan at his next engagement with Indian PM Narendra Modi, or when he is reminded of his gaffes by the State Department. Trump has made it a habit of telling Modi what he wants to hear and singing to Khan what comes across as music to his ears.
The same Trump who, with one eye on Afghanistan and the other on Iran, waxed eloquent in Davos on the state of US – Pakistan relations, had barely two years ago accused Pakistan of giving nothing but “lies and deceit” in return for billions of US dollars in aid. As former Indian diplomat Rajiv Dogra put it, the meeting between Trump and Imran Khan was “a meeting of minds because on one hand you have Trump who thinks India and China don’t share a border and on the other, you have Imran Khan who thinks Germany and Japan share a border. But more importantly, this is a meeting of interests and Imran Khan knows he has Trump where it hurts him the most – Afghanistan”.
In response to Trump’s comments, Imran Khan said that Kashmir “was a big issue for us in Pakistan. We always hope that the US will play its part, because no other country can”. India’s retort, which must have been noted by General Bajwa, would only serve to dampen any hope that Pakistan may had from Trump. Raveesh Kumar reiterated on 23 January that “Our position has been clear and consistent on Kashmir; it is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Let me reiterate that there is no role for any third party in this matter”. Trump’s involvement ended right there.
It is about time that Pakistan realized that crying crocodile tears on J&K before all and sundry would have little meaning unless it demonstrably alters its terror-sponsoring ways and thereafter convinces India of the benefits of talking to it. India’s anger and frustration at repeatedly being the victim of Pakistan-backed terrorism would, in a terror-free environment if Pakistan chooses to ensure that, certainly give way to a more optimistic outlook that prioritizes peace, resolution of differences and normalization of relations.
A statement made by Imran Khan at another event in Davos was more pertinent than what Trump told Khan and vice versa. He said, “Unfortunately, relations with India have not been great and I will not like to go into those details. But the moment the relations become normal, the world will realize the potential of Pakistan”. This reflects the clear recognition in the Pakistani leadership that for the country to achieve its full potential, it must improve ties with India. The only way to do so would be through sincerity of action and words, and by engaging directly with the Indian leadership. As an editorial in the Dawn postulated on 18 January, “the fact is that the only viable option for Pakistan and India to pursue is constructive dialogue that paves the way for peace. Irresponsible war talk and chest-thumping only serve shrill anti-peace lobbies; the people of the subcontinent deserve prosperity and friendship”.
Imran Khan’s participation in the SCO meeting in India may not, by itself, unfreeze bilateral relations. However, forward movement in ties, even if incremental, can only happen when engagement takes place.
If for this reason alone, Imran Khan should accept India’s invitation and visit New Delhi.