The summit will assume significance should Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan accept the invitation
On the face of it, Delhi’s announcement that it will invite all heads of government of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation member countries, including Pakistan, when India hosts the summit later this year, is not extraordinary. The host does not have the luxury of picking and choosing between members. But the summit will assume significance should Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan accept the invitation, as it will be the first by a head of government or state of that country to India since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. The hope of that visit was belied. In these six years — indeed in the 12 years since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks — India and Pakistan have just about managed to tread water in their relations, keeping their diplomatic engagement from sinking. Sporadic attempts to engage failed, including at a previous SCO summit at Ufa in 2015. The last year has seen relations nosedive from their already low levels.
First, there was the February 2019 Pulwama attack, India’s Balakot response, and Pakistan’s counter-response. Since August, after India did away with Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, India and Pakistan have downgraded even their diplomatic presence in each other’s countries, by withdrawing the high commissioners. A war of words is now the only engagement between the two countries. Bilateral trade, which had managed to survive earlier shocks to relations, has stopped completely. That the opening of the Kartarpur corridor took place in this setting was miraculous, but that too was touch and go.
Now the SCO presents an opportunity for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines between India and Pakistan. In deciding whether to accept the invitation, the Pakistan PM will have to take into consideration “inputs of all stakeholders”, a polite way of saying that the final yes or no will rest with the Pakistan Army. General Qamar Javed Bajwa appears to have pushed back dissenters in the Army, but his continuance beyond the court-stipulated six months is still up in the air. Even if Imran Khan stays away and sends a minister instead, as India does routinely, however, it would still be a chance for a high-level bilateral meeting. Such a meeting may not lead to anything — the Ufa meeting produced a joint declaration, but Sharif had to walk back from it. Such meetings also become the focus of speculation cloaked in the new nationalism, which turns them into who-won-the-match events, almost setting them up for failure. But the hiatus in ties cannot endure. The world wants India and Pakistan to engage, and this was evident in the way the UNSC refused to take up the Kashmir issue, saying it was not the forum for it.
India, which has declared several times recently that it wants to peel away from historical foreign policy baggage, should make a start with Pakistan by making it possible for such a meeting to take place — or, make it easier for the Pakistan Prime Minister to accept the invitation. A start could be made by resuming trade, which has ground to a dead halt, and by sending India’s High Commissioner back to his office in Islamabad.