Media Sound And Fury Over A 160 Sec Meeting, Signifying Nothing
NEW DELHI: A 160 second meeting---TV channels wanting to make the most of it used the seconds and not the under three minutes tag---between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif has the media in both India and Pakistan delirious. The excitement in the television studios was best echoed by an Indian TV reporter in Paris as she followed Sharif flinging questions that basically sought answers whether the two leaders had ‘discussed’ Kashmir, No? Then what about Terrorism?
Two minutes and 40 seconds! Not even 5 minutes. And the photo opportunity that it of course was, had PM Modi sitting close to PM Sharif in the very public lobby, the latter looking at the floor for almost all of the time, and both exchanging some words and a couple of gesture to show that they were indeed talking. This sparked off debates on television on news channels on both sides of the border, heightened speculation as experts struggled with answers and of course wise comments, with no one stopping to ask what, if anything, had these 160 (no less) seconds changed.
It was at best a photo opportunity, better than a selfie, more interesting and more attractive to the world media that was getting a little tired of the usual handshakes between the South Asian leaders and the western top brass. But a meeting---all of 160 seconds---between the leaders of two hostile countries? Interesting. And extremely interesting for the South Asian media, particularly the Indian and Pakistan TV channels that swung into highly competitive mode to give a swing to a meeting that was mundane in its political significance.
Reports have suggested that the meeting was pre-arranged and followed a meeting between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit. Of course, as this basic meeting to ensure that the handshake takes place and is not rebuffed by either is necessary. PM Modi clearly wanted to make that gesture, as one must remember he does like every visit abroad to have a certain signature, and this could not happen without an assurance that PM Sharif would respond in kind.
After the meeting PM Modi became inaccessible so the TV reporters present ran after PM Sharif for his comments that were limited, and certainly said nothing new. The Pakistan media reported him as saying later, “If we really keep positive sentiments for one another, we must take practical steps towards their fulfillment.“ And again, “We want to make progress and improve both internal and external matters,” with the assertion that all states should adopt the path of dialogue for resolution of issues.
Pakistan has been saying this for a while now. Its leaders have reiterated this at different levels, following the laid out policy of convincing the world, ‘we want to talk, we are ready to talk, but India is blocking the dialogue.” This is precisely what PM Sharif reiterated after the 160 seconds long (no less) meeting saying that it was necessary to talk, that dialogue was the only solution, and that India and Pakistan should be positive towards each other.
So what about India? What has the government said or done since the meeting to convince the media that the 160 second constituted a ‘breakthrough’ in relations as the two leaders spoke to each other for all of that time. Nothing. The Ministry of External Affairs has not said a word about the meeting, it is as if it did not happen, and PM Modi himself has not even tweeted as is his wont about the great path breaking conversation he had with PM Sharif. Silence. Nothing said, nothing achieved.
Instead the Delhi police has moved to bust a spy ring allegedly in contact with the Pakistan high commission here at about the same time as the Paris meeting. Business, thus, as usual with the animosity at home high and no indication of any shift in New Delhi’s Pakistan policy.
PM Modi has in fact met with PM Sharif in the course of the year not once but thrice. The first time was when he invited the Pakistan Prime Minister for his oath taking ceremony in a gesture that was widely interpreted by the media again as a step towards improving relations with much being written at the time about the new Prime Minister’s ‘statesman like’ qualities. This was followed by strong statements against Pakistan by senior RSS/BJP leaders at different points and had Islamabad taking its Prime Minister to task for reaching out. The second meeting was at Ufa, Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. This was substantial, in that the two PMs met in a formal setting and issued a joint India-Pakistan statement.
This was a diplomatic coup for PM Modi as the statement spoke of joint cooperation on Terrorism but left out Kashmir. The Pakistan Army gave PM Sharif a rough time on this, and the add ons that were subsequently issued on Kashmir had both countries slamming doors shut, and in the ensuing weeks, bolting these as well. The ‘go to Pakistan’ campaign directed against the minorities and critics of the government in India added to the hostility that was further deepened in Maharashtra by BJP ally Shiv Sena that has been attacking visitors from Pakistan. Visas are being denied to Pakistanis and a general environment exists today that makes it clear that civil society at least is not welcome to build relations with its counterparts in Pakistan. The cricket match between the two countries is likely to be played in Sri Lanka, as a result of the venom being spewed and the heightened tensions.
The present dispensation in India is clear that Jammu and Kashmir is not going to be part of any discussion it has with Pakistan. The old composite dialogue with the eight identified issues, that included Jammu and Kashmir, has been unceremoniously dumped. Talks were first called off ostensibly in response to a proposed---and fairly routine--- meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and Kashmir leaders. This remains controversial till date.
Terrorism is on top of New Delhi’s itinerary now, and as the Ufa joint statement suggested this needs to be given top priority. After Ufa when Pakistan refused to go ahead with the scheduled talks following the strong adverse reaction within, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said that India was willing to discuss all issues but that could only be after terrorism was taken up in earnest. Pakistan is not prepared to focus just on terrorism, without Jammu and Kashmir as high on the anvil. The Pakistan Army is not prepared to budge on this, just as the BJP/RSS is not ready to concede top status to terrorism. And there has been nothing to suggest a shift in these hardline positions till date.
The under 3 minute meeting thus took place against this background. And given the play, all of 160 seconds cannot resolve even the lack of ‘chemistry’ that is so evident between the two leaders. There has been little to no back channel, in fact the history of India-Pakistan bilateral relations should provide sufficient evidence to the scribes to realise that such meetings open doors only when there has been considerable homework between the two sides to address the concerns and the tensions. That has not happened, quite the contrary in fact with the government’s on both sides presently working on their hardline constituencies.
At the end of it, to quote Shakespeare, 160 seconds of sound and fury signifying nothing.