India and Pakistan
Modiʹs foreign policy – by whim, not design

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, Indiaʹs approach to relations with Pakistan has been inconsistent and episodic, typified in the tensions at the recent UN General Assembly. Modiʹs government has no cohesive policy framework for dealing with Pakistan, much less a compelling vision for lasting peace. By Shashi Tharoor

Judging by the unsavoury exchanges between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers at the recent United Nations General Assembly, the already deeply troubled bilateral relationship has reached a new low.

What immediately preceded the UN session was bad enough. Less than 24 hours after agreeing to a bilateral meeting of foreign ministers on the margins of the General Assembly, India cancelled, citing the killing of three Indian police officers on their shared border and Pakistanʹs issuance of a postage stamp honouring a slain Kashmiri terrorist.

But such border incidents – including both killings and retaliation – are not new; several have already occurred this year. And while the stamps were certainly an unpleasant manifestation of Pakistanʹs chronic glorification of anti-Indian violence, they were issued in July, a month before Prime Minister Imran Khan – whose new government proposed the bilateral meeting – was even sworn in.

The Indian foreign ministryʹs allegation that these incidents exposed Khanʹs "true face" was a mere fig leaf – and a churlish one at that. In fact, with a general election six months away and five state elections set to take place before the end of this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modiʹs government simply did not want a meeting with Pakistan at a politically sensitive moment.

Populist anti-Muslim stance

Modiʹs Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to have decided to contest the upcoming elections on a hardline Hindutva platform. Hindutva, the ideology of Hindu chauvinism, prides itself on hostility toward Muslims in India, as well as toward Pakistan. Smiles and handshakes in New York would not have served that strategy.

This reading is reinforced by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swarajʹs use of the UN podium to deliver a political campaign speech in Hindi to BJP voters back home. In it, she lambasted Pakistan and mentioned Modi twice as many times as she referred to India, on whose behalf she was supposed to be speaking.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on 29 September 2018 at U.N. headquarters (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Altaffer)
Missed opportunity: at the end of September, India cancelled a proposed UN General Assembly meeting between Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The move was sharply criticised by Islamabad, which accused Indian authorities of sabotaging regional peace. For his part, Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi, who also addressed the General Assembly, said the new government headed by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan "is keen to pursue a policy of partnership for peace, security and prosperity in our immediate neighbourhood and beyond"

This is not to say that Khanʹs government has been a paragon of diplomacy. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has taken a bizarre and damaging approach, alleging, for example, that Pakistan is under siege from Indian "terrorism", a phenomenon that no objective international analyst has yet recognised.

Diplomatic tit-for-tat

Qureshi also blames India for a 2014 attack on an army school in Peshawar that has been credibly attributed to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a home-grown terrorist group waging war on the Pakistani government. Given that the one government the Pakistani Taliban hate more than Pakistanʹs is Indiaʹs, the idea that they were doing Indiaʹs bidding on Pakistani soil is both grotesque and fatuous.

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