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BY: Nicholas J. Wheeler and Talat Farooq
Face to face meetings of leaders offer the best prospects for building trust and kickstarting stalled dialogues.
A new “spirit of Lahore” is needed to break down the walls of distrust between India and Pakistan. With Nawaz Sharif back in power, the omens may be good. Just as then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sharif took their first steps of trust on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 1998, Manmohan Singh met Sharif in an informal bilateral meeting at the UNGA last September. This face to face meeting played an important role in resuming the dialogue process, which had stalled after the exchange of fire across the Line of Control (LoC) had claimed the lives of Indian and Pakistani troops.
Following the Singh-Sharif meeting in New York, the Pakistani and Indian DGMOs met on the Wagah-Attari border in December 2013 to discuss how to maintain the ceasefire along the LoC. They agreed on “re-energising the existing mechanisms”, including a more effective hotline, to address complaints of violations. This was the first such meeting in over a decade. It remains to be seen whether this momentum of conciliatory moves can be sustained, but the lesson from the Lahore peace process — which began in September 1998 and culminated in the historic meeting of Vajpayee and Sharif at Lahore on February 20, 1999 — is that the best prospects for a breakthrough rest on getting leaders to meet face to face.
At Sharif’s invitation, Vajpayee had travelled to Lahore, the birthplace of the Pakistani state, to talk peace. Amid the pomp and splendour of the visit and the evening banquet at Lahore fort, the two leaders in their discussions deepened the trust that had been growing over the past few months. Vajpayee, Sharif and their top advisors had met at a private luncheon on September 23, 1998 on the fringes of the UNGA. Vajpayee had suggested to Sharif that they speak alone and it was during this private meeting that both leaders agreed to set up a secret back-channel on Kashmir and nominate one representative who would report directly to them.
For months, Indian and Pakistani negotiations had been deadlocked because of Pakistan’s determination to link progress in the bilateral relationship to concessions on Kashmir. Sharif took the courageous step of breaking this linkage and his government signed the Lahore Declaration. This put in place what, to this day, is the most comprehensive set of nuclear confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) between the two countries. Sharif’s willingness to make this important concession came from his trust in Vajpayee’s promise, made at their New York meeting, to deliver progress on Kashmir.