“In diplomacy, there is no full stop. It is always commas and semi colon.” In a masterly one-liner, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has indicated that India is keeping options open on re-engaging Pakistan, kindling possibilities of a likely meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New York later this month.
In her first interaction with the media after taking charge of India’s Ministry of External Affairs over three months ago, Swaraj appeared a picture of poise and handled around 50 questions on issues ranging from India-Pakistan talks and the Chinese president’s forthcoming visit to India to the crisis in Fiji and the plight of Indian hostages in Iraq. Unlike her loquacious predecessor, Swaraj’s answers were pithy and pointed, displaying her easy familiarity with nuances of foreign policy issues. This emerged clearly from her measured response to the possibilities of the meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Sharif on the sidelines of the 69th UNGA in New York and the no-nonsense stand on the cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks last month due to the Pakistani high commissioner’s meeting with separatist Kashmiri leaders.
Chronicling the packed diplomatic agenda of the Modi government in the first three months, Swaraj underlined that the government, in its handling of foreign relations, have shown three faces: proactive, strong and sensitive. The minister stressed that the government had also sent out strong messages to countries when needed, which included the US and Pakistan.
“When Pakistan’s High Commissioner invited separatists, we told him: “either you talk to them, or you talk to us.”
Swaraj blamed Pakistan’s insistence on talking to Kashmiri separatists as reason for the abrupt cancellation of the talks between foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in Islamabad scheduled for August 25.
“There is no flaw in the policy. We very clearly said that if you don’t talk to separatists, the talks will go on. They had talks with the separatists so this dialogue (at the foreign secretary level) was called off,” Swaraj said. “Is it wrong to expect from Pakistan that they do not interfere in our internal affairs?”
India’s foreign minister, however, kept the door slightly open for re-engaging Pakistan. “In diplomacy, there is no full stop. It is always commas and semi colon. And after all this, people always move forward.” Swaraj said when asked whether India would insist that Pakistan stop talking to Kashmiri separatists as a precondition for resuming peace talks.
Swaraj also did not rule out the possibility of a meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, saying it would depend on the situation at that point in time.
Taking a politically correct stance, Swaraj rejected a suggestion about opening talks with Pakistan’s all-powerful army and spy agency Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), which are seen as dictating Islamabad’s foreign policy towards New Delhi. “The government talks to elected governments, not with the army or organizations,” she said. “So whenever there will be talks, it will be between the Indian and Pakistani governments, not the army or the ISI.”
Highlighting the Modi government’s focus on South Asia in its diplomatic matrix, Swaraj alluded to the initiative of inviting all the leaders of SAARC countries at the prime minister’s swearing-in and holding bilateral talks with all eight SAARC leaders in May. “I believe that while the prime minister’s invitation was significant, it was more significant that they accepted the invitation and came here. They all accepted the invitation as well as came here,” she said.
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