Whose game is Pakistan’s Khar playing?

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani (L) and Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at a panel discussion at World Economic Forum, Davos, January 19, 2023

Watching the video of the Hina Rabbani Khar — Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  exchanges at Davos on Thursday, one was reminded of a remark by Russian President Vladimir Putin a few years ago that he was elected to serve his country and his people and not to please outsiders. Similarly, PM Modi was elected by the Indian people. Who is Khar to pick and choose India’s prime ministers? This is one thing.

Khar’s outburst raises a few issues. First, it throws light on the fault lines within the shaky Pakistani coalition government headed by PM Shahbaz Sharif. Evidently, she cares two hoots for her prime minister, rubbishing the thrust of his peace overture to India for dialogue and reconciliation, which he made in good faith earlier in the week in an interview. Being Pervez Musharraf’s favourite, Khar probably cannot stand the Sharifs.

At any rate, PM Sharif’s peace overture has met with sudden death even before New Delhi could formulate an appropriate response. In fact, a response has now become redundant, with Khar’s unsolicited intervention.

That is a pity, because at a time when it almost seemed as if  Pakistan’s generals have been harnessed (at least temporarily) and  the country is putting on the back burner cross-border terrorism as an instrument of statecraft, and a sense of realism seems to have prevailed that Pakistan simply lacks the wherewithal to grab J&K now or ever — and, most important, hobbling with a battered economy that is barely breathing — Indians were inclined to think that an improvement of relations with Pakistan might be conceivable. 

What Khar doesn’t understand is that Modi is actually not the problem. Make no mistake, Modi is a gifted politician who gets the pulse of the Indian people right, and the Indian opinion is indeed rather indifferent toward Pakistan. They don’t see what difference it would make to their lives if India-Pakistan relations were to improve.

From a national security perspective, Pakistan no longer possesses the capability to launch an attack on India. The mainstream view in India is that the government has done exceedingly well to contain the menace of terrorism, which is allowing normal life to continue. Therefore, turning its back on Pakistan for another decade even seems an attractive proposition to rational minds.       

Khar makes a lousy diplomat. Diplomacy is about tact and patience. What if Modi gets re-elected as PM next year for yet another 5-year term? Don’t rule it out, for heaven’s sake. After all, Modi is an immensely popular political personality and even Khar admits grudgingly that he’s done well for India as PM. 

Turning Khar’s argument on its head, if a time comes again, with whom does India engage with in Pakistan? Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, who calls Modi a ‘butcher’? Or a prime minister who is apparently such a lightweight that even a junior minister in his cabinet like Khar can trash him internationally and get away with it?

This sort of venomous antipathy toward Modi at this juncture on the part of Bilawal and Khar within weeks does not make sense. The only plausible explanation could be that the Pakistani military establishment is rattled by China’s decision to abandon the “technical” hold on the designation of Lahore-based Lashkar-e-Toiba’s deputy chief Abdul Rehman Makki as a global terrorist by the 1267 UN Sanctions Committee. 

Of course, Makki is the brother-in-law of designated terrorist and LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, who planned and orchestrated the 26/11 Mumbai attacks with the full operational support of Pakistani intelligence. Surely, China has messaged its growing impatience with terror groups operating in the region.

Bilawal and Hina are probably indulging with deliberation in a classic act of muddying the waters just when the turnaround in China’s stance appeared. Both are young and intelligent people and weaned on the entrenched belief in Pakistani political culture that the pre-requisite of advancement of career for a Pakistani politician is by being on the “right side of history” — ie., being in the good books of the generals in Rawalpindi — especially as the elections are approaching. 

But look at the damage their vaulting political ambition has caused to Pakistan’s national interests. Another couple of years at least must pass before any Indian leader takes a look at the can of worms. Is that in Pakistan’s interests? On the contrary, Sharif’s overture to India had received fulsome praise from the entire spectrum of Pakistan media. 

Why poke at Modi? Pakistan’s real problem lies beyond the Khyber Pass where “a rough beast, its hour come round at last,” slouches toward Islamabad to be born.   

Finally, an intriguing aspect in all this drama is that Bilawal and Khar are in power today thanks to the success of the Anglo-American project of regime change in Pakistan overthrowing Imran Khan from power. Without getting into detail, succinctly put, one may say that both Bilawal and Khar also happen to have a pedigree that qualifies them to be called the hirelings of the West.

As the elaborate charade of bonhomie and the facade of “value-based” partnership between India and the US is wearing thin lately, their transactional relationship can no longer be hidden. Even China notices it.

A commentary in the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party daily, on Thursday under the byline of a noted India hand in Tsinghua University took stock of the state of play in the US-India relationship as characterised by trust deficit and growing wariness on the part of the Indians regarding American intentions. Let me quote a concluding passage in the commentary: 

“India should not be viewed as a loyal supporter of the US, or a force that blindly follows the US. Judging from the country’s foreign policy orientation since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has withstood waves of pressure from the US and the West, insisting on maintaining a neutral position in the Ukraine crisis.

“New Delhi has kept a relatively large extent of its strategic autonomy and adopted policies based on the need to safeguard its own national interests. As India acts as an emerging power with growing self-confidence, it is impossible to expect New Delhi to be completely incorporated into the system dominated by Washington.” 

Simply put, it makes a compelling thought that Bilawal’s name calling of Modi at a press conference at New York, the BBC’s bizarre truth digging about Modi in a 2-part documentary, and Khar’s demonisation of Modi from the high-profile podium of Davos that is known to be carefully choreographed political theatre — all three are of a piece, interchangeable.