A DAY after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to the Foreign Office and urged a policy of peace with neighbours and paying heed to international concerns about Pakistan, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan sparred with his Indian counterpart at the Saarc interior ministers’ meeting in Islamabad on Thursday.

Hosting the meeting was always going to be a challenge, with bilateral Pak-India tensions at a peak and given the interior minister’s penchant for dabbling in foreign affairs along hawkish lines.

In addition, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, himself a hawk and no shrinking violet, had already spurned suggestions of a bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart and cast himself as a lone warrior in hostile terrain.

So, despite hopes for a reasonable outcome, the possibility of rancorous exchanges could not be ruled out. And that is precisely what came to pass as Mr Singh and Interior Minister Khan opted for petulance and pettiness against each other.

From a closely watched and deliberately botched handshake to both ministers skipping an official luncheon, the Indian and Pakistan interior ministers were the proverbial bulls in the Saarc china shop.

That the squabbling likely embarrassed the interior ministers from the other Saarc countries appeared not to worry the two.

For his part, reconciling Chaudhry Nisar’s posturing at the Saarc meeting with the prime minister’s advice to the Foreign Office must surely be very difficult.

What the prime minister said was sensible and welcome; what the interior minister did was counterproductive and helped turn already strained diplomacy into an unseemly altercation.

Was the interior minister briefed by the Foreign Office and why was he not assisted in the home ministers’ meeting by a relatively senior foreign ministry officer?

Surely, the government cannot expect to reorient foreign policy if a senior minister is contradicting the foreign ministry’s efforts and undercutting the message of his prime minister.

Once again, and this time in a matter of just 24 hours, the government has failed at a policy reset that it had itself mooted.

Dismal as the Pakistani effort may have been, the message that Mr Singh brought to Islamabad and his self-satisfied tone in remarks to the Indian parliament after his return suggest that the Indian government is also in an unyielding mood.

Seemingly determined to compound the error of killing Burhan Wani and igniting mass protests in India-held Kashmir, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is lashing out at Pakistan instead of recognising its own flawed policy in IHK.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are as old as the reality that dialogue between the two countries is essential for both. India cannot reasonably expect to engage the world minus Pakistan, but time and again that appears to be the preferred approach of Mr Modi’s government.

The unpleasantness in Islamabad on Thursday has surely deepened the divide between the two neighbours.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2016

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