There were many highlights of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s trip to India for the SCO meeting. Since he became the first Pakistani official to visit the neighboring country in more than a decade, the visit generated interest from two groups of people: those who say it was a success and those who believe Bilawal suffered humiliation at the hands of his Indian counterpart.
“I am exclusively here in the context of SCO meeting,” the scion of the Bhutto dynasty told BBC Hindi in an interview given before the event. “I have earlier told you about Pakistan’s position because of this I have not submitted any bilateral request to the host [India].”
Bilawal attended the two-day SCO Council of Foreign Ministers meeting from May 4 to 5 in Goa. Aaj News anchorperson Munizae Jehangir, who went to India to cover it, reported that despite the presence of Chinese and Russian diplomats all focus was on Pakistan’s foreign affairs czar.
Here are five points to judge what Bilawal was able to achieve and where he or his team failed.
When Pakistan gave the nod to the decision of sending its foreign minister to India after taking all stakeholders on board, many expected a thaw between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. But it did not happen. Yet, Bilawal successfully pinned the blame on India while at the same time claiming that never planned to raise bilateral issues at the SCO conference.
The onus was on India to produce an environment that is conducive for talks, Bilawal told reporters in Goa. He also made a similar assertion in interviews with Indian media while mentioning the Modi government’s Aug 5, 2019 action to revoke the special status of occupied Kashmir given in the Indian Constitution.
Though Bilawal had an informal interaction with his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar during SCO, there was no discussion on the revival of Pakistan-India bilateral ties.
On April 29, junior minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Aaj News there was no meeting requested by Pakistan with India. “It takes two to tango in order to have the other side on the negotiation table,” she said.
The Indian government has also refused to engage with Pakistan and its foreign minister did not wish to be seen interacting with his Pakistani counterpart. But away from cameras, at the dinner on Thursday night, Jaishankar did have a handshake with Bilawal while they shared the same table with other foreign ministers.
Bilawal confirmed to anchorperson Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today that he shook hands with his Indian counterpart.
“Of course, we shook hands. In all our unofficial engagements, we always shake hands when we meet,” said Bilawal.
The handshake made headlines in both countries, ruining meticulous Indian planning of giving a cold shoulder to the Pakistani foreign minister.
When it comes to counter-terrorism efforts, usually India speaks about militancy in Kashmir without discussing Pakistan’s concerns about terror attacks allegedly sponsored by India. This changed during Bilawal’s India visit.
In an interview with Bilawal, India Today anchorperson Rajdeep Sardesai mentioned that India’s position on engaging with Pakistan had been that “terror and talks can’t go together”.
“As far as India’s position is concerned, terrorism is nothing new. It’s an old challenge. Despite having to face this challenge, we have had on-and-off talks. But I don’t know how consistent India’s position is,” Bilawal said, “Pakistan and I are wholly committed to combating this menace [terrorism]”.
Bilawal told Sardesai – and through him the Indian people – that Pakistan also faced terrorism from India and that Kulbushan Jadev was a “state actor” and a former Indian Navy commander who was arrested in Pakistan.
He added that Pakistan was dealing with terrorism for itself and not because of the Indian demands.
Indian domestic politics
Bilawal suggested Jaishankar’s criticism of Pakistan was spurred by domestic political needs and that he tried to pedal lies.
“There’s nothing but insecurity behind it,” he said, “The propaganda, which he [Indian FM] is toeing being a representative of the same party which has built all this narrative, is actually exposed by us. They have built this narrative full of lies which clubs every Muslim with a terrorist.”
He accused India of peddling lies and propaganda about Muslims and Pakistanis.
Bilawal also underscored that the ruling BJP was targeting Muslims and it did not have a single Muslim MP in the Indian parliament.
Media wars and coverage by Indian media
Some of the right-wing journalists in India claimed that Indian journalists were thrown out of the press conference addressed by Bilawal in Goa.
Hindi press was mostly hostile towards the Pakistani foreign minister.
In addition to this, Sardesai tweeted that the “right-wing Twitter army” was not satisfied with him for interviewing Bilawal.
Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu and Rajdeep from India Today interviewed Bilawal and though they asked some tough questions, they ended up providing platforms for Bilawal to advance the Pakistani narrative. This annoyed the right-wing BJP.
Pakistan’s domestic politics
Here in Pakistan, some of the PTI leaders criticized Bilawal’s visit to Goa.
“As I had pointed out earlier, Imported FM desperate to go to Goa to show his loyalty to Bajwa’s Plan of appeasing the US on Israel & India. He again missed mtg on Afgh bec no photo ops there! Despite insult by India of refusal to arrange bilateral mtgs, he’s desperate to go!” said PTI leader Shireen Mazari.
She also took a jibe at the foreign minister’s gesture while meeting Jaishankar. Mazari was of the view that signaling was important in diplomacy and Bilawal’s gesture to do ‘Namaste’ signaled “appeasement”.
But PTI’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that his successor’s visit to India was a “real opportunity” to raise issues.
“No, we are not opposing the visit, we do understand that this is a multilateral obligation. As a former foreign minister, who has been to such conclaves, this is an important visit. And by all means, you should go ahead,” he told an Indian news channel.