NEW DELHI :
The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will both attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) later this month, raising speculation that it could provide an opportunity for the two countries to explore the possibility of engagement.
India and Pakistan were both admitted as full members of the SCO in 2017. As such, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is to travel to Bishkek on 21-22 May for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the SCO countries. Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is also expected to attend the meet.
The chances of a Swaraj-Qureshi bilateral meeting in Bishkek are remote. Still, given that the SCO meeting is to take place after India completes its seven-phase national elections, speculation is rife that the Bishkek meeting could afford the two countries the opportunity to explore ways of beginning the re-engagement process. Polling in India ends on 19 May and the results of the national elections are to be announced on 23 May. Pakistan and terrorism emanating from there have been key issues in the run up to elections. This is more so as it comes just months after the 14 February suicide attack in Pulwama in Kashmir.
The official dialogue between India and Pakistan has been at a standstill since 2013. Many attempts were made to resume this after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014 but these have come to nought. Modi met Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at least four times between May 2014 and December 2015 but dialogue has remained stalled—mainly because of terrorist attacks in India and Pakistan’s insistence that Kashmiri separatist groups be consulted on discussions between India and Pakistan.
Swaraj’s May visit is to pave the way for a summit of SCO leaders in Bishkek on 14-15 June, an event where the next Indian prime minister is expected to come face to face with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan.
“There is bound to be some kind of contact but whether that leads to engagement and dialogue, one cannot really say," said A.S. Dulat, the former head of India’s external Research and Analyses Wing intelligence agency.
Tensions between the two countries have been high following the Pulwama attack.
That suicide attack, triggered by a bomber who rammed a car full of explosives into a bus carrying Indian security personnel, claimed 40 lives. On 26 February, India launched an aerial attack against what it called a terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot province. And in retaliation, Pakistan launched an air raid on 27 February targeting Indian army installations in Kashmir. Tensions spiked further after Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force jet and captured its pilot following India scrambling its fighter aircraft to thwart the Pakistani raid. The pilot was returned to India on 1 March and tensions have somewhat subsided since then.
“I don’t think it will be easy for India and Pakistan to begin re-engagement so soon" even if it is after the elections, said political analyst Sanjay Kumar at the New Delhi based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies think tank. “The mistrust is so high that it is going to take a while to bridge that," Kumar said.
According to two people familiar with the developments, Pakistan sponsored terrorism is going to be a key issue for India’s next government. Prime Minister Modi’s administration has been clear that dialogue and Pakistan sponsored terrorism cannot go together. India is also likely to wait and see how the Imran Khan government in Pakistan implements the United Nations’ 1267 Sanctions Committee’s strictures on Masood Azhar, chief of the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group, which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack. India has demanded that Pakistan take “credible, effective and verifiable actions" to address India’s concern over cross-border terrorism from Pakistan – in the absence of which, it will be difficult for New Delhi to begin any substantial engagement, one of the people cited above said.