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Was Bilawal Bhutto's India visit a missed opportunity?

May 5, 2023

The Pakistani foreign minister's visit to India to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting could lay the groundwork for future interactions between the archrivals, analysts say.

Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar, left, with his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Goa, India
India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the Himalayan Kashmir regionImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the first high-level Pakistani official to have visited India in almost 12 years. The ties between the two South Asian rivals have not exactly been smooth since both countries gained independence from British rule in 1947, and a 2019 terror attack on Indian troops in Kashmir further increased tensions.

New Delhi, which accuses Islamabad of backing Islamists and separatists in India-administered Kashmir, blamed the attack on Pakistan.

India and Pakistan claim the disputed Kashmir region in its entirety but each rule only parts of it.

In 2019, New Delhi revoked the special constitutional status enjoyed by the part of Kashmirunder its control, further angering Islamabad.

Despite these thorny issues, the Pakistani foreign minister's decision to visit India to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting could be seen as a positive development. At the same time, it was a missed opportunity to improve ties between the two sides.

Bhutto was certainly cautious about the implications of his trip, as his political rival Imran Khan's party had already accused him of compromising on the "Kashmir cause."

"I will be leading the Pakistan delegation at the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers. My decision to attend this meeting illustrates Pakistan's strong commitment to the charter of SCO," he said on Twitter prior to his departure to Goa, adding that his visit would only focus on the SCO. "I look forward to constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly countries."

India is certainly not a "friendly country" for Pakistan, which is why there were no bilateral talks with Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar.

The SCO was founded in 2001 to discuss security and economic matters in Central Asia. China, Islamabad's major regional ally, leads the bloc, and India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are also part of the grouping.

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No bilateral engagement

"The SCO is an important regional forum, and Pakistan has been its full member since 2017. We have participated in all mandatory SCO meetings to contribute to regional peace, prosperity, and development. The foreign minister's presence in the meeting will ensure that Pakistan's interests are safeguarded," Shazia Marri, Pakistan's federal minister for poverty alleviation and social safety, told DW.

"Pakistan's participation at the SCO in Goa is not a bilateral interaction between Pakistan and India. The visit took place in a multilateral context, keeping with Pakistan's commitment to the SCO," she added.

Amit Ranjan, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, believes the time was not right for Bhutto to have a direct meeting with his Indian counterpart, Jaishankar. "There was an absence of a conducive environment for the Bhutto-Jaishankar meeting," Ranjan told DW. "Unless such a political environment is created, it is tough to see India and Pakistan engaging in talks. It's a missed opportunity for now."

But that is easier said than done. Since New Delhi revoked Kashmir's special status, any government in Pakistan would face a backlash domestically should it choose to engage with India.

"It is important for Pakistan to maintain a safe distance from the Indian government. India was not looking to engage with Pakistan at the SCO. There is no chance of a breakthrough unless New Delhi revises its Kashmir policy," Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based political analyst, told DW.

"This visit was not an engagement opportunity as India is continuously looking to punish and hurt Pakistan," he added.

Bhutto said on Friday that it was India's responsibility to build a "conducive environment for talks," adding that India's 2019 actions in Kashmir "really undermined the environment, and now the onus is on India that they create the conducive environment in which talks can be held."

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Pakistan's political and economic turmoil

But PM Modi's government is unlikely to heed to such demands. With India emerging as an economic powerhouse and Pakistan's economy on the verge of collapse, New Delhi seems fully uninterested in negotiating anything with Islamabad.

"At present, due to its economic conditions, Pakistan needs India more than it did in the past," Ranjan said.

Improved ties with India could open the door to limited but crucial bilateral trade, which would be extremely beneficial for Pakistan.

But the Muslim-majority country has been in a state of political turmoil since the removal of former PM Imran Khan from power in April 2022. There has been a deadlock between Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance over the dates for the next general election.

"The political confusion in Pakistan does not provide a right and suitable atmosphere for bilateral engagement. There is going to be no reconciliation with Bhutto's visit," a senior official in India's Foreign Ministry told DW.

Ajay Bisaria, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, shares a similar view: "Bilawal Bhutto has come to India with his hands tied behind his back, in terms of diplomatic space for any initiatives on the bilateral front. Domestic politics in Pakistan will not allow him to reach out in any substantive way."

"Nevertheless, the fact that he made it to the conference in India is significant. Even a courtesy exchange between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines would prepare the ground for future interactions after elections are done in both countries," Bisaria added.

'Better than nothing'

Although Bhutto could have achieved more with his India visit, foreign policy experts say the visit was not completely inconsequential.

"The occasion of Bhutto's visit, and the fact that India issued visas to Pakistani journalists to accompany him, has sparked a light," Amitabh Mattoo, a foreign policy expert at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told DW.

"But it was not enough to brighten the gloomy bilateral relations," he added.

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T. C. A. Raghavan, a former Indian envoy to Pakistan, echoed this view, saying that Bhutto's visit is unlikely to have any bilateral takeaways and is seen by both India and Pakistan in the SCO context alone.

"If one has to search for positives, it could be said that this is better than Pakistan not attending the meeting at all," Raghavan said. "But presently the situation in Pakistan is not conducive for any movement on India."

Additional reporting by Murali Krishnan, DW reporter in New Delhi, and Haroon Janjua, DW reporter in Islamabad.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru