To defend the indefensible is in the job description of Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, and Abdul Basit, now in the final days of his three-year stint in New Delhi, must be looking forward to being rid of that onerous obligation. The pointless pretence of peddling Pakistani propaganda might just be tolerable if there was a promotion at the end of it, but the luckless Basit has lost out to Tehmina Januja in the race to become his country’s foreign secretary. So the diplomat deserves some praise for gamely sticking to the task until the bitter end.
His valedictory performance, at an event in Mumbai last weekend, had the usual admixture of mendacity and mealy-mouthedness. There were the customary bromides about the need for India and Pakistan to restart a dialogue—the onus, but of course, falling on New Delhi. As always, Basit dissimulated clumsily on questions about Pakistan’s continued protection of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on Indian soil. For good measure, he claimed that there were no terrorist camps in his country.
The assembled gathering seems to have politely refrained from snorting or guffawing.
The audiences awaiting him on his return to Islamabad will be no more credulous, but at least there he will have the opportunity to tell them things they haven’t heard before. He might be able to surprise them—jolt them, even, out of some of their complacencies.
Basit’s spell in Delhi has coincided neatly with that of the Modi administration, so he has watched the Indian prime minister more closely than any other Pakistani official. It’s a fair bet that the question Basit will be asked at every gathering, private or public, will be: “What does Narendra Modi really want?" The curiosity about—and concern over—Modi has grown exponentially since his triumph in the state elections, and his appointment of a Pakistan-baiting hardliner as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
This means Basit will very likely have the opportunity to speak to a larger audience of the Pakistani elites, beyond the tiny circle that has had access to his dispatches. Having failed to move the needle for Pakistan in Delhi, Basit might better serve his country by becoming, after a fashion, Modi’s envoy to Islamabad.
What might Basit usefully inform his influential countrymen?
Having spent the past three years pushing the Pakistani line in India, he can start by telling them that Modi is not buying any of it. You’d think this would already be plain to Islamabad, but there’s speculation in some Pakistani quarters that Modi, with his political power now at its zenith, might be willing to reopen a dialogue with the Old Enemy. Basit should be able to disabuse his people of that notion, by pointing out that the Indian prime minister is harder of head and colder of eye than his recent predecessors.
He could remind Pakistanis that Modi’s already been there and done that, having initiated a dialogue at the start of his tenure, to no avail. The Indian prime minister has no need for another photo-op with Nawaz Sharif, and seems now determined to isolate and embarrass his counterpart—although, truth be told, Sharif and his military overlords are doing a bang-up job of that without his help—on the international stage.
Basit could also help Pakistanis understand that it’s not just Modi: ordinary Indians don’t seem to want renewed dialogue, either. For all of Islamabad’s denials, Indians are in no doubt who to blame for the attacks on Pathankot and Uri, and the overwhelming support for last September’s “surgical strike" in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir suggests they prefer kinetic, rather than diplomatic, responses.
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For emphasis, Basit could underline the fact that poll after poll has demonstrated that Indians greatly approve of their leader’s strong line on Pakistan and on Kashmir. The outcome of the recent assembly elections, he could explain, is in some part an endorsement of Modi’s stance on these issues.
Having had plenty of opportunity to break bread with Indian politicians of all stripes, Basit could bring home the sobering recognition that, on the matter of Pakistan, there’s very little sunlight between the government and the opposition. This means even if some dramatic change of fortunes were to bring about a change in government in 2019, Islamabad would have no cause for optimism.
Basit’s term in New Delhi has also coincided with a deepening of military and intelligence cooperation between India and the US, something he would do well to highlight for the benefit of those back home who are still clinging to the hope that Washington will lean on Modi to play nice with his neighbour. He will have noticed that Indo-American ties are not limited to Modi’s personal equation with Barack Obama, and could warn against assuming that the Trump administration will go in a very different direction.
In short, Basit can provide Pakistanis with a much-needed reality check on their expectations from Modi’s India. It is, of course, possible he will not find a receptive audience back home: the Pakistan ruling elite has a history of freezing out former envoys who speak inconvenient truths. But then Basit’s already used to people not listening to him, and it’s never stopped him before.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.