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Pakistan to invite Narendra Modi for SAARC Summit next year: Masterstroke by Imran Khan puts India in a pickle

Almost a month after asserting in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) that Pakistan will try resuming efforts to improve ties with India after the 2019 elections, prime minister Imran Khan seems to have been seized the 'Kartarpur moment'. Now, reports from Pakistan suggest that the Foreign Ministry is preparing to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad, possibly early next year. This decision comes a day after India hit out at Pakistan for harbouring terrorists responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

If Pakistan follows up on this decision — and there are enough reasons to be sceptical about it (remember Imran Khan swearing-in fiasco), it will be a masterstroke from Imran Khan – albeit not exactly sufficient to win the match.

Even after the embarrassment of 2016, when India and several other nations pulled out of the SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan citing the unfavourable regional security situation and for India, specifically the issue of cross-border terrorism, Pakistan always wanted to push for eventually holding the summit. Yet, the current push for SAARC may have just come as a surprise for India as this puts New Delhi in a rather tight spot.

 Pakistan to invite Narendra Modi for SAARC Summit next year: Masterstroke by Imran Khan puts India in a pickle

File image of Imran Khan and Narendra Modi. Twitter @MEAIndia

If India decides to turn down the invite, Islamabad will be more than happy to offload the blame on New Delhi for the latter’s refusal to engage and take forward regional integration process. This will be similar to the strategy adopted by India all these years where it blamed Pakistan time and again for not reciprocating India’s willingness to have a dialogue and holding SAARC hostage to bilateral ties. Remember this time, the first move has come from Pakistan, unlike previous instances where India used to make the first move and therefore had the moral high ground to retract citing either unfavorable circumstances or terrorist violence.

If India does decide to accept the invite, then the government will have to mount a solid justification domestically about why is it willing to give second chance to Pakistan. Such a move carries risk in an election year where the BJP would be more than willing to adopt a tough posture towards its opponents with its politics centred around jingoism and against 'anti-national' elements. The riskiness of such a move becomes even more apparent if one considers the possibility of anti-India terrorist groups carrying out an attack to sabotage the dialogue.

Therefore it will be a difficult choice for India and by putting New Delhi in a tight spot, Imran Khan has got an advantage. Yet, this advantage is only a temporary as it will yield only limited dividends for Pakistan.

There are other SAARC members – Afghanistan and Bhutan — who may just like last time announce a boycott of the SAARC Summit. Islamabad currently does not enjoy the greatest of relations with Kabul. Hence such a move on the part of Kabul or Thimphu will actually help India to avoid the ignominy of turning down Pakistan’s invite.

Secondly, in the race of regional integration, SAARC is more like a dead horse amidst the sprinting contenders like BIMSTEC and SCO. In fact, it was India's planned strategy in the last few years to focus on regional integration without Pakistan and hollow out SAARC. The focus was on the Eastern flanks to take more willing neighbours and carve out initiatives like BIN and BIMSTEC, which fitted nicely with India’s 'Act East’s policy. Therefore, Pakistan’s strategy to reinvigorate SAARC is a good optic but lacks substance.

More importantly, at a time when Pakistan has become an international pariah state – barring for China and Saudi Arabia – with United States' reoriented approach and FATF grey listing, it will take more than putting India in a spot, to restore Pakistan's credibility in South Asia and globally.

But at present, the ball is in India’s court and the world will be keenly watching what will be our response as and when the Pak invite comes. Perhaps New Delhi may take a calculated risk and turn down the invite. Or perhaps it may go by the spirit of 'Kartarpur moment' – and pertinently Modi's 'Berlin wall’s comment — and dispatch the vice-president or a senior minister, citing prime minister's hectic schedule in an election year.

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 11:39:50 IST