The time: September 1990, the eve of the commencement of yet another session of the General Assembly. The place: one of the many alcoves that line the wide hallways of the imposing United Nations building in New York where impromptu press conferences are often held.
India’s foreign minister of the recently formed VP Singh government, the neat, dapper Inder Kumar Gujral, was holding forth in one of them. The world press was interested enough, curious to know what the new government had to say. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, the lack of excitement was palpable.
Next scene, later that afternoon, one of the smaller but still impressive-looking rooms off the above-mentioned corridors: Pakistan’s foreign secretary, the aristocrat, and aristocratic-looking Nawabzada Shahryar Mohammad Khan, then still in his fifties, was meeting the press. And what a show that was.
Apropos nothing, he suddenly burst forth on the “torture” being faced by the people of “Indian Occupied Kashmir”. His voice trembled, his face reddened as he narrated, in his clipped English, what he believed to be the Indian army’s many transgressions and human rights violations. It was pure theatre. The international media was mesmerised. You could see their faces registering, first shock, then consternation, finally sympathy.
It brought to mind Zulifkar Ali Bhutto’s histrionics at the United Nations Security Council on 15 December 1971, just before the end of the Bangladesh war. How emotional the 30-something foreign minister of Pakistan was, his voice quivering, his hands shaking as he spoke of the sufferings of his own people and India’s perfidy, how India’s involvement in Pakistan’s eastern wing was “gunboat diplomacy in its worst form” that made “Hitlerite aggression pale into insignificance,” how by acquiescing in this sort of aggression the United Nations would be “turning the medium-sized and the small countries into the harlots of the world,” so on and so forth, ending with him tearing up the UN Security Council resolution that Pakistan had wanted to be passed and America had supported but which the then Soviet Union had vetoed before striding out of the room, head held high. Again, the unalloyed drama did not change the outcome but left the world with a lingering sense of doubt about Kashmir as, yes, Kashmir had of course figured in Mr Bhutto’s stirring speech.
The reason for delving into past history is simple: India needs to be very careful how it goes about “isolating Pakistan diplomatically at every international forum of the group.” India is understandably mad after what happened in Uri, but has decided to act smart and not let rage overtake its actions. That is wise indeed. It is also much tougher.
When it comes to the world media and the forging of international opinion, Pakistan has always been clearer, cleverer and prompter than India, always one step ahead, always playing at the tugging of heart strings than appealing to logic and reason.
Pakistan has already begun its counter-narrative of “the killing fields of Indian Occupied Kashmir” which is likely to find deeper resonance after the reports of pellet guns killing even eleven-year-olds and blinding many that the Western media has gone to town with. It also claims the moral high ground every time it throws up the offer of international mediation over that disputed valley.
Especially since all Pakistan wants is to bring India to the table for talks. As their former foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri told Dawn News TV last Thursday, “I have been foreign minister for five years. I am not stupid to think that the international community will help resolve the Kashmir dispute. The point,” he said, “is to build pressure on India, not to get the international community to resolve the issue. The only resolution of the issue is to hold bilateral talks.”
So Sushma Swaraj will have her work cut out in New York next week. It is not just Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif she will have to deal with, who is already in the US working the media and the politicians. But she did charm him a short while ago in Islamabad itself with her Urdu diction. Whether that rapport has survived Uri remains to be seen.
On the other hand, Pakistan has long experience in working the US system and milking it for all its worth to further its own interests. Even in 2011, within hours of the stunning news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US commandos in a Pakistani military base not far off from Islamabad, a lobbying firm representing the government of Pakistan began contacting members of the US Congress and their staffs to counter claims that Islamabad had protected the Al-Qaeda chief and America’s most wanted for nearly six years.
Whether the push by the lobbyists Locke Lord Strategies to turn the tide against criticism of Pakistan — and preserve the country’s billions of dollars in American aid — did the trick we can’t say, but the fact is President Obama’s national security adviser soon echoed what the partners of Locke Lord had gone to great lengths to point out – that bin Laden did indeed have a support network in Abbottabad but US had not seen evidence that the Zardari government knew about that.
True, American leaders are no longer as anti-Indian as, say, Richard Nixon was during the Bangladesh war, when he is supposed to have told his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Look, I wouldn’t do that to help the Indians, the Indians are no goddamn good.”
Pakistan too is not quite in the good books of the US and it's NATO allies as it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall as a bulwark against the Russians and then as a launching pad for their proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Despite all its efforts to please its bosses in their war against terror and save itself being “bombed to the Stone Age,” the world has begun to see Pakistan as unreliable, untrustworthy and unstable, in short, a rogue state.
As Le Monde, the much-respected Paris newspaper put it recently, “there is something desperate about Pakistan”. As soon as the country shows signs of improvement, things go badly wrong, the article underlined, adding, “frankly we would love to be able to give some positive news about Pakistan but the task is impossible.” Many in the West agree.
Yet, they still need Pakistan. More senior Al-Qaeda operatives have been caught or killed in Pakistan than in any other country, it is said, while keeping thousands of US troops in Afghanistan to go after Al-Qaeda and the Taliban “depends on an enormous supply train that requires the daily cooperation of the Pakistani state.”
Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s nuclear ties to Iran, Libya, and North Korea have all been conveniently brushed away by putting the blame on one individual, their nuclear scientist Dr AQ Khan. While the links between the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has not really been properly acknowledged, at least not in public.
The compulsions of realpolitik coupled with high-voltage drama of which Pakistan is capable can make for a lethal combination. In 2011, Pakistan made young (just 34 years old), beautiful, accomplished Hina Rabbani Khar its foreign minister, at a time when it was facing a barrage of criticisms for housing bin Laden and talks with India had stalled thanks to the Mumbai attacks. She came, the India media saw, she conquered. Our journalists were quite bowled over by her flowing locks, pearl and diamond necklaces, Cavalli sunglasses, Birkin bag so that she was duly dubbed “Pakistan’s weapon of mass distraction”.
Can India pull a similar rabbit out of its hat? Maybe New Delhi should let Shah Rukh Khan take the stage in the UN General Assembly next week. No joke this.