Pakistan was represented not by the Prime Minister but by a junior health minister

Pakistan’s irresponsible and immature behaviour was on full display at the SAARC video conference on the Coronavirus epidemic, or Covid-19, epidemic organised at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative on March 15.

The objective was to prepare the region for a united fight against the deadly outbreak that has killed over 8,000 and infected over 2,00,000 people across the world.

The video conference was attended by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of Maldives, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering of Bhutan and Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli of Nepal, proving the importance these countries attached to a coordinated effort at the regional level.

Pakistan , however, was represented not by the Prime Minister but by a junior health minister. The decision to nominate Zafar Mirza, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, raised quite a few eyebrows in diplomatic circles in New Delhi.

To make matters worse, Pakistan raised the Kashmir issue, instead of focusing on the humanitarian crisis that the disease has inflicted with mind-boggling ferocity across the world, including South Asia where more than 400 people have tested positive. Ironically, the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan alone stood at over 250 on March 18..

While a global audience watched the unique initiative on coronavirus live on television, one of the pages of what seemed to be Mirza’s prepared speech was surreptitiously picked up by an Army official who walked away briskly. Moments later, the Pakistani official picked up another sheet of paper that appeared to have been handed over to him by someone not visible on the television screen. It was after this that Mirza brought up Jammu and Kashmir.

“Equity in health is a fundamental principle of public health,” Mirza said. “In this regard, let me say that it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir and in view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown there must be lifted immediately,” he added.

However, for those who are keen watchers of political and diplomatic activities inside Pakistan, this is not a new development. There is not a single political and diplomatic discussion in Pakistan which happens without the army’s intervention and approval. The presence of a senior ranking army official in every meeting of the Pakistan Prime Minister speaks volumes of this fact. One can also notice this in the tweets and videos posted by Imran Khan’s twitter handle @ImranKhanPTI.

Even during the Pakistan government’s cabinet meetings, one can see an army officer with pen and pad in hand to take notes of the discussions. Such scenes naturally generate negative feelings among those who have grown up in a vibrant democracy. But for Pakistan and its citizens, such spectacles are normal - they have been witness to these for the past seven decades. Besides, Kashmir is a part of Pakistanis existential SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). For the country’s elite army officials, the issue is a matter of survival and staying relevant. They know that once it is peacefully settled, their annual budget will start declining and then, a day will come when they will also lose their commanding position in Pakistan’s scheme of things.

This fear has made Pakistani armed forces keep the country’s civilian government weak and vulnerable. Therefore, calling the Imran Khan government a puppet, will not be wrong. But in spite of all fallacies and weaknesses of Pakistan’s democratic government, it is not expected to cut a sorry figure before an international audience on an issue of humanitarian importance like Covid-19. In the past six months, Pakistan has raised Kashmir on various national and international platforms. The SAARC video conference on Covid-19 was hardly an appropriate platform to score a political point.

By raising Kashmir from this platform, Pakistan has only harmed its own image. It has ended up creating an impression that the Imran Khan government is not serious about protecting the Pakistani people from the deadly virus. It would also have disappointed those who sympathized with Pakistan in the past. Now they too may be forced to think twice before pressurizing India to mend fences with Pakistan and revive SAARC.