By: Salman Haidar
Reaching out to the SAARC countries on his inauguration was an imaginative gesture on the part of the new prime minister. This is the region nearest to India, with geographical, historical and cultural ties, with shared problems and aspirations. The immediate neighbourhood has always been top priority in foreign affairs and Narendra Modi’s initiative shows that it remains so. There was an element of spontaneity in his invitation, suggesting that it was a personal initiative by him. And if India reached out, the rest of the region responded handsomely — all accepted and attended.
Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend gave a particular dimension to the occasion. Pakistan is where India’s biggest challenges lie — basic questions of strife and tranquility are involved, and a long history of bitter hostility. Modi’s party is identified with tough attitudes towards Pakistan, laying emphasis on the need to address the issues of terrorism and border clashes before any kind of normalisation can be envisaged. There was some grumbling from party hardliners when Nawaz came but Modi was undeterred, and the Nawaz visit became the biggest event in the international outreach at his inauguration. Images of amity came out of the meeting between the two prime ministers, suggesting that it had been a warm and friendly encounter, which is not unusual when Indian and Pakistani leaders meet. Subsequent press briefings from both sides were a little more measured but still encouraging and positive in tone. The prime ministers had their senior advisors with them, though this was essentially a session for them to get to know each other.
The real test of their meeting will be how far it serves to develop mutual confidence: both prime ministers have baggage to shed, and if Modi has to contend with the shadow of 2002, Nawaz has Kargil to live down. No major initiatives were announced after the meeting, beyond a decision that the two foreign secretaries would meet, though no details have been indicated or dates announced. It can be assumed, however, that the officials will aim at reviving the bilateral dialogue, which has been languishing for some time. As the meeting of prime ministers seems to have gone well, there is an expectation that further tangible steps may be possible. Greater trade ties, in particular, which have been discussed several times, would offer obvious benefits to both sides. Moreover, the required facilities have long been available at the land crossing in Punjab. But the final step has been held up by bickering over details. Maybe Modi’s more forceful style will lead to quicker results on trade facilitation, which would bring quick benefits, especially if accompanied by easier arrangements for people-to-people contact.
The major stumbling block is terror. For progress in bilateral ties, it is essential for India to be satisfied that continued…