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Will PM Modi and Shehbaz Sharif Meet on SCO Sidelines in Samarkand?

By: Vishnu Prakash

Last Updated: August 17, 2022, 10:01 IST

Bilateral engagement has been minimal since the terror strike on Pathankot air-force base in January 2016 and more so after the gruesome Pulwama bombing in February 2019. (Shutterstock)

Bilateral engagement has been minimal since the terror strike on Pathankot air-force base in January 2016 and more so after the gruesome Pulwama bombing in February 2019. (Shutterstock)

India has always been a votary of peaceful resolution of disputes through talks. Yet, the sad reality is that every time India has sought to reach out to Pakistan, its deep state has struck back with vengeance

Any time the leaders of India and Pakistan (or China) are slated to attend a regional or multilateral event, the media and strategy community dive headlong into a high-decibel speculation about the possibility of a bilateral meeting.

Though not formally confirmed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Samarkand, Uzbekistan in mid-September 2022, when India inter alia is to assume presidency of the organisation as well as host the 2023 summit. The newly minted Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is also expected to attend, triggering another round of ‘talkathon’.

A similar speculation had ensued before the SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (June 13-14 2019) which was attended by Modi and Sharif’s predecessor Imran Khan. No meeting eventually materialised, except for a brief exchange of pleasantries in the delegates’ lounge. That too was disclosed not by India but the Pakistani foreign minister.

Incidentally, the SCO foreign ministers, including India’s Dr S Jaishankar and Pakistan’s Bilawal Bhutto, were in Samarkand last month, preparatory to the summit. Again, they just exchanged pleasantries without having a tête-à-tête, which is a good barometer of the state of frosty ties.

It has been some seven years since the last summit took place, when PM Modi made an ‘impromptu’ stopover at Lahore on December 25, 2015 to felicitate his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. Interestingly, that was perhaps the first and last time that Modi also met Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz and then chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab.

As always, a majority of pundits are in favour of a Modi-Shehbaz meeting. The arguments go thus: the Sharif clan is well-disposed towards normalising relations with India; they are good administrators and understand the value of bilateral business ties; neighbours and nuclear powers India and Pakistan cannot afford to look past each other forever; Pakistan is in dire economic straits and more amenable to a meaningful engagement; Pakistan-fostered terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir is at an all-time low and the ceasefire renewed last year is holding; the peace constituency in Pakistan needs to be bolstered, and so on and so forth.

Few discussants have bothered to probe deeper. What would the talks achieve? Why was the dialogue process suspended? Is Shehbaz Sharif on sound political wicket? Is the political situation in Pakistan opportune for a constructive engagement? Has Pakistan taken any meaningful action against the terror networks targeting India? Is the all-powerful Pakistan army on board? Is necessary spade work underway at appropriate levels to prepare for the summit? It is, therefore, pertinent to look at the ground realities.

India has always been a votary of peaceful resolution of disputes through talks. New Delhi time and again initiated the dialogue process with Pakistan in the vain hope of finding a way forward. Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s musings and the famed bus yatra to Lahore in February 1999 is still fresh in public memory. Yet, the sad reality is that every time India has sought to reach out to Pakistan, its deep state has struck back with vengeance.

Bilateral engagement has been minimal since the terror strike on Pathankot air-force base in January 2016 and more so after the gruesome bombing of the CRPF convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 which took 40 innocent lives. India gave a befitting response by conducting surgical strikes deep inside PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) on a major terror facility at Balakot run by the notorious JeM chief and UN designated global terror mastermind Masood Azhar, who is nurtured and sheltered by Pakistan. Islamabad has failed to take any meaningful action against JeM and other terror groups training their guns at India.

Pakistan’s knee-jerk reaction and shrill denunciation of India’s long overdue decision in August 2019 to amend Article 370 of the Constitution to do away with special privileges for the state of Jammu and Kashmir further vitiated the atmosphere. High Commissioners on both sides were sent packing and the ties became more fraught.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been sinking deeper into a political and economic rabbit-hole of its own making. “Pakistan is a dysfunctional and abnormal state.” opines former High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal. The nation has been mired with numerous afflictions due to its internal fault lines and the decades long proxy war against India. However, two of them — ‘jihad-addiction’ (deployment of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy) and a debilitating ‘debt-addiction’ — is taking the heaviest toll.

Islamabad, hat in hand, has had to knock at the IMF door 21 times since 1958. The ongoing discussion for a $6 billion EFF (extended fund facility) would be the 22nd tranche. The bailout request had been agreed to in 2019, but put on hold due to Imran Khan’s anti-west and populist policies. With him out of the way and knowing the gravity of the situation, the all-powerful Pakistani army chief General Bajwa reportedly approached deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to intervene with the IMF.

It may also be noted that Pakistan has been quite “even-handed”, unabashedly tapping all possible sources for financial dollops, be it China or Saudi Arabia or UAE. China has loaded Pakistan with the largest debt amount of over $60 billion, a bulk under Imran’s watch, which the country will never be able to repay. Pakistan continues to incur a monthly trade deficit of $1.5 billion due to heavy dependence on import of oil and essential commodities.

Bilawal Bhutto has stated on record that during four years in office the “amount of debt Mr Khan’s government accumulated is equivalent to all debt in Pakistan’s history from 1947 to 2018”. At a conservative estimate, Pakistan’s sovereign debt adds up to $250 billion, equivalent to 85% of its GDP. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped to around $9 billion. Inflation has soared over 30% annually. Pakistani rupee has registered a steep fall of 30% since the beginning of 2022 to $1 = PRs. 240. Moody’s downgraded Pakistan’s outlook to negative.

The political situation in Pakistan is as grave. Shehbaz Sharif heads a coalition government comprising sworn adversaries who have very little in common except a strong dislike for Imran Khan and the fear of facing early polls before October 2023. Their ascendancy to power was once again paved by the army which lost trust in Imran Khan, once their blue-eyed boy whose rise they had engineered.

The same army (under Bajwa) had hounded Nawaz Sharif out of office and into exile in 2017. Adept at making and breaking civilian governments, they have not allowed any Prime Minister to complete full five-year term in office since Independence.

However, if anybody thought that Imran Khan will go away quietly into the night was sadly mistaken. Like a wounded tiger he is on a rampage, addressing rallies and stoking disaffection against the present government and the military. His following seems to be growing since being ousted from power last April. His campaign is resonating with the common people who are hurting due to the country’s economic woes.

The July 2022 bypolls for 20 Punjab assembly seats has dealt a huge setback to the ruling coalition, particularly Sharif’s PML (N). Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) secured 15 of the 20 seats, dislodging Sharif’s son as the Punjab CM. Punjab was supposed to be the citadel of the Sharif clan. Emboldened, Imran Khan is now accusing the government of selling out to the IMF and demanding early elections.

The irony is that Sharif’s government and party are being forced to pay the price for bringing about some economic discipline by reducing subsidies and adjusting prices, while Imran Khan’s profligacy seems to have been forgotten.

Meanwhile, the army and the government are trying to neutralise Imran Khan politically by slapping charges of misappropriation of state property and accepting illegal donations from 34 foreign nationals, including someone of Indian origin. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has constituted a special 5-member team to establish the charges. Imran Khan allegedly sold off a necklace gifted to him for Pakistani rupees 18 crore instead of depositing it in the toshakhana or treasury.

Given the nation’s dire straits, Pakistan’s polity needs to suspend grandstanding and hammer out a national consensus on economic reforms, but that remains a pipedream. Power centres continue their usual fractious, divisive, self-serving and rent-seeking elitist politics.

Pakistani leadership’s obsession with Kashmir, regardless of their ilk, remains unabated. On August 5, Shehbaz Sharif posted a nasty tweet accusing India of using “unbridled force with complete impunity”, “oppressing and torturing” Kashmiris and paying rich tributes to all the “martyrs” (read terrorists and separatists).

The political situation in Pakistan is so volatile that “there is very little room for manoeuvre for anything constructive with India”, observes Sharat Sabharwal. Sharif is essentially a “stopgap” PM with a tenuous mandate and uncertain tenure. He has his hands full with domestic issues, in addition to handling sections of a hostile Taliban whom the ISI helped come to power.

As such, a formal meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan does not appear to be on the cards.

The author is Former Envoy to South Korea and Canada and Official Spokesperson to the Ministry of External Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:August 17, 2022, 09:59 IST
last updated:August 17, 2022, 10:01 IST