President Barack Obama took many by surprise when he, disregarding protocol, warmly hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 25. The act apparently overwhelmed as much as it excited those present around the two leaders and the hundreds of millions of TV viewers in and outside India. The embrace at the airport, as well as the ensuing engagements of Obama, underscored a new chapter in India-US relations. Obama’s second visit to India incensed and annoyed many in Pakistan. Several analysts, officials and the right wing in particular were huffing and puffing over it. Obama snubbed us by not visiting Pakistan but our government continues to remain in a subservient mood, or at least this was how a number of observers and politicians interpreted the event. These emotive responses in Pakistan notwithstanding and regardless of the tangibles achieved, Obama’s New Delhi yatra carries several messages for Pakistan.
Firstly, result-oriented nations go by rationales and are not moved by emotions. They refuse to be stymied by the past and move on in the national interest; until his rise to the Indian premiership, Modi was counted among those responsible for the 2002 riots in Gujarat and was, therefore, denied a US visa for years. But the Obama Administration swept the human rights issues under the carpet and instead rolled out the red carpet for Modi back in September 2014. America’s national interest dictated that this should happen.
Secondly, by taking time out to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations, Obama signaled that he cannot afford to decline an Indian prime minister’s invitation, even if it may be devoid of any substance. Thirdly, Obama’s visit soured the moods, particularly of those who had hailed him as the first American with a Muslim lineage. Little did they realize that he represented the interests of the US and probably did not want to be reminded his Muslim identity. Looking at an American president through a religious prism was disgustingly misplaced.
Fourth, the US has drawn lines for its relations with India and Pakistan; the former offers boundless economic opportunities. It serves as a magnet for corporate America, and thus the obvious unavoidable choice for it as much as is China for the majority of nations. India also holds immense value as a geo-strategic US partner in a region dominated by the economic rise of China, which is seen by others as flexing its political muscle too. India and Japan, in the US geopolitical calculus, offer a counter-balance of power in the region.
Pakistan remains conflict-driven, its security crisis precipitating the consequences of an elitist-driven governance system. Various conflicts inside the country and the one in Afghanistan keep Pakistan relevant for the US, though largely in the security context. Whatever potential this country has — and it indeed can theoretically offer a lot — as of now remains untapped because of its volatility and its image as an ‘untrustworthy ally’. That is why, as of now, the responsibility of dealing with Pakistan rests largely with John Kerry. Ironically, in a situation that warranted a full-time energetic foreign minister to lobby with friendly countries for Pakistan, the government apparently has left this to the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, to see counterparts and even political leaders in London and Beijing. The out-of-protocol hug Obama gave to Modi was, therefore, an embrace of geopolitical and commercial interests at best — shorn of any streaks of the bitter past.
Pakistan’s domestic situation hardly holds any promise for its relations with China to take the same path; what can we expect of a political leadership that has surrendered foreign diplomacy, parts of the judiciary and the entire gambit of security to the military establishment? The PML-N stalwarts are strategically hamstrung by parochialism and are mostly given to self-promotion rather than working for the interests of the federation. The less important but fast-paced metro bus project, and the critically crucial but snail-paced development of the new Islamabad airport, are the embodiments of this mindset.
This article was first published in The Express Tribune, a leading Pakistani daily. Click here to go to the original.