Foreign policy issues are expected to be handled in a far more sensitive manner than domestic issues. Each statement or even each word has to be carefully worded to avoid controversy.
The present government is an exception even on this. Both the prime minister and the foreign minister have a tendency to say things that can create immediate controversy. That is then followed with clarifications – but the damage is generally done. A slip here or there is understandable but what does one say when it becomes a norm.
The last few weeks have been no different with the PM and the FM both equally contributing to the mess. The foreign minister fired the first salvo by declaring the scrapping of Article 370 from the Indian constitution as India’s internal matter.
Readers will recall that India took the decision to scrap Article 370 in August 2019. As a result of this unwarranted decision, Indian-held Kashmir no longer enjoyed the special status as it did for over 70 years. There was an immediate reaction from Pakistan after the Indian decision. We rightly pointed out that Kashmir is a disputed territory and India has consistently recognised that fact. Pakistan and India only differed on how the solution is to be found. Pakistan always claimed, and still does, that the UN resolutions are the only way to resolve the longstanding issue. India, on the other hand, has been maintaining that the Simla agreement has to be the basis.
It was only natural that there was an uproar after the recent statement by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Was this a major change in policy or a historical U-turn? As we later found out, it was none of the above. Pakistan’s policy remains the same – explained later by the foreign minister but only after the damage has been done. We found out that it was only a slip of tongue.
Before the Indian elections in May 2019, PM Imran Khan in an interview stated that the BJP winning the election would make it easier for there to be a solution to the Kashmir dispute. Strange for the PM to expect hope from a party that almost took India and Pakistan to war in February 2019 and which has been more hostile than any previous New Delhi regime in recent history. The PM surely must have felt embarrassed when the BJP under PM Modi took the unilateral decision to scrap Articles 370 & 35A within months of winning the elections.
Only in the last two weeks, PM Imran Khan was castigating our ambassadors for their poor performance – not just in reaching out to expatriate Pakistanis but also failing to get investment into the country. He referred to Indian diplomats as a model to be followed by Pakistani foreign service officials. More worrying was how the PM’s admonishment of diplomats was being shown live on all major channels. It is another matter that the PM has little understanding of the sensitivity of foreign policy issues and how they need to be handled. Again, the damage had been done before the PM, in a now standard pattern, withdrew his remarks. But this was only after several former foreign secretaries and others bluntly expressed their dissatisfaction at the PM’s remarks.
The PM also needs to understand that foreign investment is a consequence of several factors including the economic conditions in the country, investment opportunities, possible returns, risk associated with the investment, policy regarding repatriation of profits, political stability, tax policy, central bank rules and several other factors.
Last year, the foreign minister also came under fire when he publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the Saudi leadership over their lack of initiative on the Kashmir issue. Remarks such as these, in full public view, can only draw flak and lead to more embarrassment for the country.
The PM has often made statements which could have been avoided. Some statements have never been clarified despite the embarrassment caused. Who can forget the PM’s statement regarding Germany and Japan sharing a border with each other? No sense of history here – nor geography. This statement was made when the PM was visiting Iran. While in Iran, he made another startling statement; he publicly admitted that a Pakistani terrorist network had been involved in crossborder terrorism in Iran. The Foreign Office officials did try to give it a spin but never contradicted in its entirety.
The prime minister takes pride in not reading from any prepared text or ‘parchis’ as his supporters like to describe. That is fine as long as you are not in the habit of making serious out of context remarks or statements which are not based on reality or fact. Some of the remarks or statements mentioned above have caused serious damage for the country. In some cases, contradiction or retraction has worked but only after serious damage has been caused.
In other cases, like the foreign minister’s statement regarding Saudi Arabia or remarks by senior leadership on CPEC required much more effort to repair relations. Some very close countries for example were not so happy after several ministers in their enthusiasm to discredit the previous government issued statements regarding projects while suggesting that the terms of the projects were not favourable to Pakistan.
Hopefully, the PM and the foreign minister have now learned the implications of such gaffes and will avoid any major mishap in the future.
The writer is the spokesperson for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and former governor Sindh.