What made the External Affairs Minister furious was Zardari’s remarks about the treatment of minorities in India.
Just as the sun was setting in Goa, weaving a spell of magic in the sky, the underlying tensions between the estranged neighbours, India and Pakistan, bubbled to the fore. In a beachside resort in South Goa, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar countered his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s accusation of “weaponizing terrorism”, with uncharacteristic vehemence.
The usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken Dr Jaishankar seethed with anger, in a voice laden with sarcasm, as he called out Pakistan’s scandalous double-speak on terror. “As a Foreign Minister of an SCO member state, Mr Bhutto Zardari was treated accordingly. As a promoter, justifier and a spokesperson of a terrorism industry, which is the mainstay of Pakistan, his positions were called out and they were countered including at the SCO meeting itself,” he told journalists at a beach resort after the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Goa on 5 May.
In a blistering expose of Pakistan’s duplicity on terrorism, Dr Jaishankar made it clear that “victims of terrorism do not sit for talks with perpetrators of terrorism.” “You know, victims of terrorism do not sit together with perpetrators of terrorism to discuss terrorism. The victims of terrorism, defend themselves, counter acts of terrorism, they call it out, they delegitimise it and that is exactly what is happening.”
Bhutto Zardari’s comment that “let’s not get caught up in weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point-scoring”, elicited a sharp response from Dr Jaishankar, who said that it “unconsciously reveals a mindset”. “What does weaponising something mean? …It means that the activity is legitimate. But it’s not. Now what are we doing? We are countering this, we are defending ourselves. We are calling it out. We are not scoring diplomatic points. We are politically and diplomatically exposing Pakistan before the world,” he said.
Dr Jaishankar’s masterly riposte to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was not a spontaneous outburst, but the manifestation of a new assertive, no-nonsense, calling a spade-a-spade diplomacy to nail down compulsive liars and fabricators.
It was also carefully planned, with caustic one-liners crafted to send the message across loud and clear that when it comes to matters of national security and terrorism, India won’t mince words but call out word games designed to deceive and divert. Well-placed sources said that Jaishankar decided to take on Zardari and expose Pakistan’s propaganda after the Pakistani Foreign Minister held a press conference in Goa for Pakistani journalists in which he accused India of weaponizing terrorism. But what made him furious was Zardari’s remarks about the treatment of minorities in India, reminiscent of his description of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “butcher of Gujarat”. At this point just a few minutes before his press conference, Jaishankar got a message from the top and decided to go all out to expose Pakistan and rubbish Zardari’s posturing. Sources said that there was also political pressure as the BJP-led government wanted to send a “tough-on-terror, tough-on-Pakistan” message ahead of the elections in Karnataka.
CHINA: BORDER FIRST
One saw a similar approach, albeit slightly muted, in S. Jaishankar’s response to Chinese Foreign Minister Qing Gang’s pitch for resuming people-to-people contacts despite the lack of visible progress in the disengagement of remaining troops from friction points in Ladakh. This won’t wash, he said in response to a question on Chinese minister’s remarks at a function in memory of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, one of the five Indian physicians dispatched to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938.
He also aired his impatience with word games by countering Mr Qin’s description of the border situation as stable. “We have to take the disengagement process forward. I have made it very clear, publicly as well, that India-China relations are not normal and cannot be normal if peace and tranquillity in the border areas are disturbed…,” said Jaishankar.
The India-Pakistan slugfest on the margins of the SCO meeting in Goa once again highlighted the danger of allowing bilateral issues to overshadow a multilateral grouping. In his opening remarks at the SCO meeting of Foreign Ministers, S. Jaishankar had highlighted positive outcomes of the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting which included SCO approval for new verticals of cooperation proposed by India, including setting up a special working group on start-ups and innovation and another expert group on traditional medicines.
Looking ahead, as India gears up to host its first-ever SCO summit in New Delhi on 4 July, it will be a formidable challenge for India to shield the SCO from bilateral rivalries and animosity. In September last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Shehbaz Sharif were in Samarkand for the SCO summit, but at that time the two leaders had wisely decided to avoid rhetorical attacks, but in a few months, the temptation for grandstanding prevailed and threatened to undermine the SCO. Against this backdrop, it’s critical to salvage the SCO, a Eurasia-focused grouping that is expanding as more countries join the grouping as members, dialogue partners and observers.
Modernisation and strengthening of SCO figures high on the agenda of India’s SCO presidency, which seeks to keep the eight-nation organization “relevant in a rapidly transforming world.” In this regard, the SCO’s support for India’s long-standing demand to make English as the third official language of the organization will help to enable a deeper engagement with the English-speaking member states of the SCO and broaden the SCO’s global appeal. Given the growing importance of the SCO to the geopolitical landscape in the region, India should call out enemies of peace, but at the same time ensures that the SCO does not become a staging ground of India-Pakistan rivalry like the dysfunctional SAARC, thereby foredooming the prospects of the grouping that can become a bridge between different regions and people.
Manish Chand is CEO, Centre for Global Insights India, a think tank focused on global affairs, and Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network and India and the World.