Can FM Bilawal Zardari’s visit to Goa reduce tensions between the rival neighbours?

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will travel to India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa. The last bilateral visit by a Pakistani foreign minister was in July 2011 when Hina Rabbani Khar came to India.

The announcement of Zardari’s trip is at a time when the diplomatic relations between the two countries have been strained for years.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, said at a news conference: “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will be leading the Pakistan delegation to the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) being held on 4-5 May 2023, in Goa, India”.

What to know about Zardari’s India visit and why is it significant? When have Pakistan leaders visited India earlier? We explain.

Pakistan FM to visit India

Pakistan foreign minister’s India visit announcement comes after a formal invitation was sent by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar through the Indian High Commission in Islamabad in January.

“Our participation in the meeting reflects Pakistan’s commitment to the SCO Charter and processes and the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson told the media, as per NDTV.

India assumed the rotating presidency of the SCO – a regional political and security bloc – at the SCO Summit held in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand last year.

Besides India and Pakistan, the other member states of SCO are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These eight member countries account for around 42 per cent of the global population and 25 per cent of the global GDP.

It also includes four observer states – Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia – and six dialogue partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

Significance of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s India visit

Zardari’s visit will happen at a time when the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan are at their lowest.

Tensions increased between the neighbours after India targeted the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot in February 2019. This had come as a response to the Pulwama terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir earlier that month that resulted in the death of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans.

In August 2019, the relations further hit the skids after India revoked Article 370 which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into Union territories.

Following this, the then-Imran Khan government responded to the move by recalling its ambassador and cutting off trade ties with India.

Pakistan frequently raising the Kashmir issue at the United Nations has also irked India.

In December 2022, Zardari stoked a major controversy with his remarks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prompting a response from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

The Pakistan foreign minister, who was in New York to participate in the United Nations meetings, said on 15 December, “Osama bin Laden is dead, but the butcher of Gujarat lives and he is the Prime Minister of India.”

These comments came after his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar called Pakistan the “epicentre of terrorism”.

Reacting to the Pakistan minister’s statement, India’s foreign ministry called them an “uncivilised outburst”.

Can Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardaris India visit reduce tensions between the neighbours
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s statement on PM Modi created a row in December 2022. Reuters File Photo
India has maintained it wants normal relations with neighbour Pakistan, while stressing the need for Islamabad to create an environment “free of terror and hostility” for that to happen, noted ThePrint.

Devirupa Mitra, Diplomatic Correspondent at The Wire, wrote in her article in early April that no breakthrough is expected in the tense relations between the two nations – both of which are slated to hold general elections in the near future – even if Zardari visits India.

“No one expects any proposed visit by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, or even minister of state Hina Rabbani Khar to act as a breakthrough – especially since both governments in India and Pakistan would have to face an election within a year. Since both sides have lost practice in having diplomatic encounters, the perception was that a visit for a multilateral summit would give an adequate excuse to break the mould, rather than a bilateral visit”.

“It could also act as a soft launch for any baby steps required to normalise the relationship that may only happen after a new government takes over in both countries,” Mitra wrote for The Wire.

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When Pakistani leaders visited India

In December 2016, the then-Pakistan prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz, who was considered the “de-facto foreign minister”, according to The Wire, visited Amritsar in Punjab to attend the Heart of Asia conference.

The last time a Pakistani prime minister was on Indian soil was in May 2014 when Nawaz Sharif visited New Delhi for attending prime minister Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

Can Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardaris India visit reduce tensions between the neighbours
In 2014, Nawaz Sharif visited New Delhi for attending Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Reuters File Photo
In March 2011, Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani watched the India-Pakistan World Cup cricket semifinal with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh in Chandigarh.

In 2012, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari landed in Delhi – the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India in seven years.

Zardari met Indian prime minister Singh and also paid respects at the renowned shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan’s Ajmer.

After the talks, both Zardari and Singh had expressed a mutual desire to improve relations between the nuclear-armed countries.

In 2005, General Pervez Musharraf, who was the Pakistani president at the time, had come to India to watch the sixth ODI at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium on 17 April.

Musharraf also met then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in July 2001 in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra. This was the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries after the 1999 Kargil War.

A “cricket diplomacy” was also seen in 1987 when Pakistani president Mohammed Zia ul-Haq arrived in New Delhi to watch an India-Pakistan cricket match.