There has been surprise — and consternation — in various quarters in India, over the Modi government's reported request first to fly the PM's special plane through Pakistani airspace to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting. The request, made while Pakistani airspace itself is closed off following the Indian Air Force (IAF) pounding terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan, was first granted — but it has now apparently been rejected.
By the Modi government itself.
News reports say the Prime Minister's plane will not in fact fly to Bishkek through Pakistani airspace but will take a longer route, adding about four hours to the trip, flying over Oman, etc.
There is a history and a politics to this trip, to the detour and the new detour.
When Pakistan allowed then-foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s flight — while she was also going to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan — through its airspace, it was a different time altogether.
True, she was going to attend the same Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's meeting. The airspace closure after Balakot was very much there. And all this happened only a few weeks ago.
But it was a meeting of the foreign ministers of member countries — not the heads of states. And the election results in India were just due.
Now is a very different time.
Narendra Modi has been re-elected, partly on his strong anti-terror rhetoric targetting Pakistan. With no invitation extended by Delhi to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, the message of ‘no engagement unless you stop funding terrorism’ stands crystal-clear.
Modi also chose Sri Lanka and the Maldives for his first trip after his re-election.
One stone to kill two bird.
But can Pakistan be cornered at the SCO summit?
Don't look to us for help: Pakistan wants desperately to improve its global image. India is no partner in that endeavour. (Photo: DailyO)
No. India may avoid bilateral talks with Pakistan and engage with China and Russia. But the SCO (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) is a China-dominated grouping and China has already made it clear that it won’t like it if its all-weather friend Pakistan gets singled out.
In a curiously worded article, China's Global Times advised Prime Minister Modi to improve ties with Pakistan in order to realise regional goals. “The two sides must strengthen mutual trust and diminish the tensions before they can root out and dismantle terrorism. Their contradictions have become the main problem for joint development in South Asia. If India-Pakistan ties improve and stabilize, India will gain more esteem in the region,” it said.
The article described Pakistan’s attitude as ‘active’, while it concluded by rather insiduously musing, “Modi should not merely express his gratitude for Khan’s good wishes, but take pragmatic actions to recover the bilateral dialogue process, which has been suspended since January 2016, promote better relations with Pakistan and work to establish peace in the region.”
There are reports which suggest that China has made it clear the SCO is not a platform to ‘target’ any country. On the other hand, there's also great excitement that for the first time, Imran Khan is supposed to meet Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the SCO summit.
In the backdrop of all this comes the confusion over Prime Minister Modi's flight. And the mandarins of Delhi have made their first misstep with this reported request. It is clear the SCO is going to be tough terrain for India to navigate, given China's insistence on treating Pakistan not like a terror haven but like a normal state.
In this backdrop, asking Pakistan for special permission — a favour, as it were — for the Indian PM's plane could also be seen as a weak gesture of attempting to normalise ties.
This is exactly what the Indian government has to be extremely wary of.
In the story of the PM's flight, Pakistan has only gained. Its acquiesence, along with Pakistan's recent supposed 'crackdowns' on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, should be seen as PR machinery to improve its own global image.
And this is exactly where the Modi government should not help it, not for a moment, not for a second — not for the extra four hours it will now take the Indian Prime Minister to reach Bishkek.
Also Read: Naya Pakistan, Purana Debt Trap: Why an IMF bailout package of $6 billion places Imran Khan in a painful spot