Pakistan invites India to a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and India accepts. Less than 24 hours later India cancels deliver a scathing statement against Pakistan's prime minister. What exactly happened?

Even by the standards of the geopolitical circus that is Indo-Pak relations, events in South Asia last week were curious. 

The first, and more pleasant, surprise occurred when India, accepting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s invitation, announced its External Affairs Minister and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister would meet on the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting. 

Before sober analysts even had an opportunity to warn against optimism, their task was moot. 

Within a day, India cancelled the talks via a statement so undiplomatic that even hawkish Indian analysts criticised it. In turn, Khan tweeted his disappointment at India’s “arrogant & negative response” to his overtures and, without naming Indian Prime Minister Modi directly, added that “all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture.” 

By the next day, the cycle was complete, with both armies threatening war as casually as one would shell peas.

It is not new for India and Pakistan to launch barbs at one another, but how did only forty-eight hours elapse between a minor breakthrough and talk of war?

Certainly, Pakistan bears partial responsibility for the fiasco, in that its initial extension of a friendly hand was done without any noticeable homework. 

Serious attempts at rapprochements between rivals are usually initiated at lower levels of government, away from the public glare. Indeed, the region’s two most serious efforts at negotiating a durable peace—between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in the late 1990s, and between Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf in the mid-2000s—reached advanced stages precisely because of their privacy. 

Imran Khan may have had good intentions, but the PTI-led government was hasty and unprepared, traits that have consistently plagued its short tenure. But there can be no doubt that India is the guiltier party when assessing blame for this most recent escalation. 

Modi and his government would have been well within their rights to deny Khan’s request for a meeting, but once they acceded, the meeting should have been seen through. That the meeting was cancelled less than twenty-four hours after it was announced was an indictment enough. But the searing language of the MEA statement—it read that “the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been revealed to the world in his first few months [sic] in office”—was a dramatic departure from diplomatic protocol.

India’s reasons for canceling the meeting and its histrionic rhetoric are unclear. 

The only aspect of the decision we can be certain of is its timing: whatever happened to change the government’s mind took place between the mornings of September 20th and 21st. 

India’s official reasons – anger at Pakistani postage stamps honoring the late Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani, and the discovered bodies of three policemen in Kashmir – stretch credulity. The postage stamps had been in print for months, before Khan’s election, but Indian officials leaked to The Hindu that they “only came to our notice” on Thursday night, a laughable assertion.

India’s complaints of terrorism, however, are more serious. But even here, anonymous leaks to the Times of India, alleging “intercepts” of ISI officials giving terrorists in Kashmir “specific and pinpointed instructions” to kill three local officers, messages that were evidently “chillingly specific, identifying the victims by name,” strike one less as compelling evidence and more a convenient cover for a decision taken for other reasons. 

India’s complaints that the Pakistani military operates closely with militant groups responsible for violence in Kashmir are valid, but these complaints were baked into the cake; they were presumably considered by decision-makers when agreeing to the meeting in the first place. 

Was militant violence that much graver on September 21st than on the 20th?  

It is much likelier domestic electoral concerns, rather than events in Pakistan or Indian-administered Kashmir, drove Modi and the BJP’s u-turn. 

When in opposition, the BJP was a strident critic of the UPA government’s Pakistan policy, repeatedly casting the Manmohan Singh government as soft. For the BJP, talking to Pakistan, in any capacity, could invite similar counterattacks. 

As the Guardian reported, “the more jingoistic elements of India’s media” opposed the meeting once news of it broke. Along these lines, India’s former High Commissioner to Pakistan suggested the language of the MEA statement canceling the meeting was not the handiwork of civil servants, but rather drafted by senior BJP leaders with an eye on next year’s national elections.

In this telling, the reason for canceling the meeting was a sharp realisation amongst the upper echelons of the BJP that the path to another electoral victory depends on burnishing and brandishing its nationalist credentials. 

This theory has the added benefit of explaining events unrelated to the meeting imbroglio, such as the government’s decision to hold a three-day public exhibition celebrating the second anniversary of its “surgical strikes,” including exhorting public universities to observe September 29 as “surgical strikes day".

Whatever the causes of the cancelation of the Pakistan-India meeting, it was an opportunity lost. 

Ameliorating, if not resolving, the deep divisions between India and Pakistan requires dialog. Indeed, talking might be the easiest element; decisions about terrorism and territory are more difficult than discussions about them. 

That even miniscule steps such as the one suggested by Imran Khan are deemed a bridge too far, remind us why pessimism about peace in South Asia is warranted.

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