External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj struck a firm note at the United Nations General Assembly last week, calling Pakistan the “greatest exporter of havoc, death and inhumanity” and contrasting this with India’s reputation of being a hub for Information Technology. Pakistan’s envoy to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, gave a reply calling India the “mother of terrorism in South Asia” while holding up a photo of a girl who she claimed was the victim of Indian forces in Kashmir. As it turned out, the photo depicted Rawya abu Joma’a, a Palestinian girl who had been injured by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

Swaraj’s speech sought to compare India’s global achievements to Pakistan’s as a way of responding to Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s address in which he called on India to stop “fueling terror” in his country. Swaraj’s retort was sharp:

“Mr President, I would like today to tell Pakistan’s politicians just this much, ask them that have they ever thought that India and Pakistan became free within hours of each other. Why is it that today India is a recognised IT superpower in the world, and Pakistan is recognised only as the pre-eminent export factory for terror? What is the reason for this have they ever thought? There is only one reason. India has risen despite the principle destination of Pakistan’s nefarious export of terrorism. 

There have been many governments under many parties during 70 years of India’s freedom for we have been a sustained democracy. Every government has done its bit for India’s development. We have marched ahead consistently without pause creating IIMs, IITs, AIIMS and in the fields of education, health, space and across the range of human welfare.We established scientific and technical institutions which are the pride of the world.

But what has Pakistan offered to the world and indeed to its own people apart from terrorism? We produced scholars, doctors, engineers. They have produced terrorists and terrorist camps. Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hijbul Mujahideen, Haqqani Network. We produce scholars, doctors, engineers, scientists. What did you make Pakistan? You created terrorists and Jihadis. And you know, Doctors save people from death; terrorists send them to death.”

Trumpian tone

The speech received praised from across the political spectrum in India, even though some of the compliments were also jibes, such as Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi thanking Swaraj for “recognising Congress government’s great vision and legacy”. Swaraj’s comments would also have been noticed in Washington, DC, since it seemed of a piece with US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric at the General Assembly, albeit without a catchy “Rocket Man” phrase for North Korea’s Kim Jon-un. India’s First Secretary to the UN had taken care of that earlier, however, by calling Pakistan, “terroristan”.

The reception from the American administration may indeed be the most important part of the entire effort, especially considering India does not seem to have much in the way of a coherent policy toward Islamabad at the moment, having tried both the carrot and the rhetorical stick. New Delhi was given a glimmer of hope, albeit on a fairly unreliable platform, when Trump unveiled his Afghanistan policy in August.

That speech also included a stern message to Pakistan, saying the US can no longer be silent about how it has been a safe haven for terrorists. Trump used the speech to call for a greater Indian presence in developing Afghanistan, although he couched this message in transactional terms, suggesting New Delhi should be involved because it “makes billions of dollars in trade with the US.” Though India welcomed the statement, analysts insisted that it is important New Delhi approaches interactions with Kabul on its own terms, and not as an instrument of American policy.

How that will play out might become clearer this week. On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary James Mattis will arrive in India, the first member of Trumps’ Cabinet to visit, and he will jet off to Kabul immediately afterward. Over the following four days, New Delhi will also play host to a first-of-its-kind India-Afghanistan trade and investment fair, assisted by the US Agency for International Development. The fair will feature a large delegation of Afghan ministers, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. And it comes days after India announced that it would work with the Afghanistan government on 116 “new development projects” across the country.

Zero role

These developments come despite Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi saying at an interaction in the US that he sees “zero” role for India in Afghanistan, at least on the political or military front.

“India and Afghanistan share an old and civilisational relationship, and it is in the basis of this relationship that the US has now asked India to do more in Afghanistan’s development effort,” Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali told The Hindu. “It is because of India’s excellent performance in the last 15 years in Afghanistan that India was called upon. India has been the largest donor in the region, and has always had a positive and popular role for the people of Afghanistan. It should instead be asked, why is India’s role only being recognised now?”

Swaraj’s high profile speech sends a message, but it will be Mattis’ visit and the outcome of discussion around the trade fair that could well dictate if anything is set to change in South Asia anytime soon.