A picture does, indeed, tell a thousand words. However, the picture that adorned the front pages of almost all Pakistani newspapers and graced the mini-screens of all television sets on May 22 told much more than that.The picture that cheered tens of thousands of faces in Pakistan that morning showed Indian FM Sushma Swaraj sitting side by side with her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. It was taken on the sidelines of the Ministerial meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek, where the two top South Asian diplomats met after an inordinately long hiatus.
What was even more cheerful about the picture was that both ministers were seen smiling in it, if not exactly beaming. And Qureshi literally sweetened the pot by revealing to the world media that Swaraj had brought him a gift of mouthwatering traditional Indian sweets—an addiction common to people on both sides of the South Asian divide.
Well, to be fair to him, Qureshi had, earlier, done his part of injecting some sweetness into long-estranged neighbourly relations by allowing Swaraj’s special flight to Bishkek, from Delhi, to overfly Pakistani territory. Pakistan has had its airspace closed for overflights from India since the February 26 spat between the two neighbours on Balakot. India had claimed to have breached Pakistan’s security by attacking a so-called terrorist training site in Balakot, inside Pakistan. The claim was contested by Pakistan. But Pakistan clamped down a precautionary ban for overflights and has, ever since, kept it in place.
But much more than the optics of the picture, it was the timing of the two ministers’ casual encounter that triggered a train of speculation in Pakistan.
Their meeting took place only a day before the official announcement of the weeks-long Indian elections’ result by the Indian Election Commission. By then, exit polls in India were confidently predicting a triumphal encore for Modi and his BJP.
Armed with that foreknowledge, pundits in Pakistan literally went to town and lost no time in articulating their optimism that Modi: 2—meaning Modi’s second stint in power—would be more inclined to repair torn fences with Pakistan. They pointed to Swaraj’s ‘sweet-package’ for Qureshi as harbinger of a more friendly Modi.
This wave of ‘premature euphoria’—for want of a better description—was despite the gloom that had earlier blanketed the Pakistani media’s coverage of Modi’s election campaign. There was no dearth of Cassandras bewailing the toxic rhetoric of BJP stalwarts, including Modi himself, against Pakistan. There was a complete consensus among the media gurus and opinion makers that BJP’s main election plank was anchored in whipping up chauvinistic propaganda of hate against Pakistan.
But the positive signals emitting from that picture from Bishkek coaxed many a Jeremiah to rethink and hope for a more salubrious climate in relations between India and Pakistan under a triumphant Modi.
History was there to boost optimism. It took a Communist-baiter like Richard Nixon to end US hostility to “Red China’ and recognise its reality. There was an implicit joy in recalling that episode because Pakistan had smoothened Nixon’s passage to China. So, why not pin hopes on a Pakistan-bashing Modi to put the past behind and light a candle to give peace a chance?
However, it didn’t take long for the euphoria to die down. The setback came from the Modi government’s decision to omit Pakistan from the list of leaders of its neighbouring countries invited to PM Modi’s second inauguration on Thursday, May 30, in Delhi.
This is despite the fact that PM Imran Khan had felicitated Modi with alacrity on winning his second term. Imran followed it up with a phone call to his Indian counterpart to rearticulate his desire for a peaceful relationship with India, a thought he had articulated on day one of his donning the leadership mantle in Pakistan. His offer of taking two steps forward if India takes only one still stands.
Why, then, this deliberate rebuff, this calculated affront to Pakistan is a question agitating the mind of every Pakistani pundit. Not that there isn’t a precedent of a Pakistani leader attending such a fanfare ceremony in Delhi. It was only five years ago, in 2014, that the then Pakistani PM, Nawaz Sharif, had been invited to Modi’s first inauguration. Why not Imran this time?
What hurts sensitivities in Pakistan, in particular, is that every other neighbour of India—Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Thailand—was invited but not Pakistan, which was conspicuous by its noticeable absence on Thursday, just as it was prominent by its presence in 2014.
FM Qureshi, in a media interview on May 28, tried to dispel the gloom by playing down what was only a ceremonial occasion. He, once again, called upon India to think positively. But it may be insufficient to assuage the angst of not only pundits but also ordinary Pakistanis. What’s Modi’s game, they ask. What’s the message buried in mixed signals: sweets one day and bitter insults a week later? Should Pakistanis stop hoping for an end to bitterness with India?