Public diplomacy sans trust


November 03, 2015

Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit (left) and his wife Summiya at a press meet in Bengaluru on Friday after the former was felicitated by the Press Club of Bengaluru (AFP)

In a departure from the past, Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit visited Bengaluru to indulge in some serious public diplomacy. 

But his official stance on issues relating to terrorism did not go down well with even those who gave him a patient hearing.

“My name is Abdul Basit and I am not a terrorist.” This line from a career diplomat may not have carried the dramatic élan that Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan would have while promoting his movie My name is Khan, a film that portrayed the travails of a Muslim in the US in the era of Islamic terrorism. But, it sort of symbolised the message that Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India attempted to communicate by pulling out all stops in his effort at public diplomacy on his first visit to India’s technology capital and southern city of Bengaluru, better known as Bangalore.

Basit’s visit raised many eyebrows and an equal number of questions. The questions ranged from why is he going around lecturing all over town; what is he up to; what is he trying to change through these interactions; with some even wondering why, at all, is he allowed to speak. Many of those who asked these questions had little understanding of the political import of his visit or the standard protocols that are followed by two countries having diplomatic relations.

It was simply surprising for the common people to see a Pakistani diplomat spending so much time interacting with various sections of society, be they students, thinktanks, businessmen and Urdu writers, among others, during the course of his four-day visit. This was quite a departure from the standard practice of a day’s flying visit to the usual Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Lucknow route, normally traversed by his predecessors. And, worse, communicating directly with the people. Basit, of course, was out to clear the ‘misconceptions’ spread by the good old whipping horse of all and sundry - the media - about Pakistan. His fundamental purpose was to communicate that Pakistan is a country which ‘genuinely’ seeks peace and friendship with India.

Basit, clearly, was on a mission which, admittedly, was to underline that public diplomacy,

indeed, has become an important part and parcel of international relations. It is not very different from what the US ambassador does in India or in Russia or what India’s high commissioners/ambassadors do in countries like the US or Russia or, for that matter, even in Pakistan. The only exception, however, was the day before Basit’s arrival, his Indian counterpart was told he was unwelcome, that too, after a formal invitation to visit the Sindh Club in Pakistan was delivered. Basit, however, remained unfazed because he had also faced similar situations.

The Pakistan High Commissioner’s effort at playing the ‘soft power’ card was aimed at a constituency in India which believes that talks between the two countries should take place even if there were fundamental differences over Kashmir. The effort was to drive home the point that there were issues other than Kashmir that could be discussed which could help in bringing the two countries closer. And, certainly that effort had taken a severe beating when hopes of reviving cricketing ties between the two countries were dashed following protests that marred the meeting between the top officials of India and Pakistan cricket boards.

His most honest line appeared to have been made to the students when he admitted that his generation had been unable to resolve the problem between the two countries and it was up to them to do so without looking at it subjectively. But, there were other aspects of his interactions that somehow failed to carry conviction with those who listened to him. Like the ‘I am not a terrorist’ line. Basit did try to also say that the proclaimed terrorist and underworld don,

Dawood Ibrahim, was not in Pakistan and that ‘if you had information, you should share it with Pakistan’. He topped this up with another gem. That the Jamaat-ud-Dawa headed by Hafiz Saeed, was a ‘philanthropic organisation’. It was, however, being watched closely and would be proscribed if it was found to be indulging in any terrorist activities. It is the same organisation that masterminded the Mumbai terror attack and has been globally declared a terror organisation.

And, better still was his response to the question that should have embarrassed Pakistan no end with its former president, General Pervez Musharraf, going on record to confirm everything that India had been saying all along. That Pakistan was responsible for training terrorist organisations and the Taliban for Afghanistan. Musharraf had gone on to say that Osama bin Laden was a hero for Pakistan. Basit, of course, came up with a response that any experienced diplomat would come up with. That Musharaff has been a former president and former army chief and that it was not for him to comment on his statement. But, then he served his ace by saying that Pakistan had moved on since a decade ago.

To even those who heard him out patiently and who genuinely want relations between India and Pakistan to improve, the official stance on issues relating to terrorism did not really go down well. This is despite the fact that there are sections which believe that hostility cannot be sustained for too long and improving economic relations with India were critical, more for Pakistan’s good. But, then, who in that country will be able to convince the army that there is the path to development and peace in the region that needs to be taken, sooner than later.

Because only with an improved economy will Pakistan be able to counter terrorism and function like a country. Currently, Pakistan appears to be exploiting its geographical location [next to Afghanistan] or ‘real estate’, as one uncharitable Pakistan watcher put it. It has become the darling of China; made even the US re-engage with it and now Russia, India’s time-tested traditional friend, wants to engage with it. It is possible to work out deficits in budgets but deficit in trust is a difficult proposition even in public diplomacy.

 

Change at ground level?

It appears that there are political changes happening in India’s northern and largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The state has undergone elections to the lowest rung of democratic institutions and the results seem to have reversed the 2014 verdict which brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to power at the federal level. The ruling party appears to have lost out to a party representing largely the downtrodden Dalits,

the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) headed by former UP chief minister Mayawati, which has won a large number of seats. The BSP had been practically wiped out in 2014 parliamentary elections.

But, the most surprising aspect of the defeat the BJP suffered came from a village, Jayapur, which was adopted by the Prime Minister in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi. The BJP managed to win just eight of the 48 seats in Varanasi. The results seem incomplete as of now but the noteworthy aspect of the available results is that this is the first time since 2014 elections that the BJP has faced this kind of defeat at the local body elections after the defeat in the Delhi assembly election. It has only enhanced the excitement for the results of the elections held to the Bihar Assembly where the Prime Minister has remained the main campaigner against regional outfits representing the backward classes. Those results are scheduled to be out on Sunday.

 

Tailpiece

The fight for freedom has gone through various phases. In the last century, it was freedom  from colonialism. Now, it’s a different battle altogether.

Here is one that captures the concern of people of the 21st century, of course, delivered through the same vehicle from which freedom is being sought.

“A brilliant quote by Noble laureate Desmond Tutu which read: When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we

had the Bible and they had the land.”

“When Facebook and WhatsApp came they had the Internet and we had the freedom. They said it’s free. We closed our eyes. When we opened we had the Facebook & WhatsApp and they had our freedom.”

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]