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 steps are being taken to curb hostile cross-border activities. There is a sense in India that the civilian leadership in Pakistan may not be fully in command, and that the army and security agencies may have their own views on this matter. Such apprehensions have been repudiated by the other side but cannot easily be laid to rest. Notwithstanding their significant differences on this vital matter, it is necessary for the two sides to remain engaged and seek some common ground against the threat of terrorism. A revived dialogue would also need to address other long-standing disputes, like Sir Creek and Siachen, and, as has often been suggested, it may be time to re-examine and expand the structure of the dialogue process itself in order to obtain better results.
One key issue on which talks have not come to a halt is Kashmir, which has been under discussion through a special back channel between the two governments. Reports from knowledgeable individuals engaged in this effort suggest that they have actually got somewhere. A four-point formula for a settlement has emerged from the secret talks, which could be a significant advance on this most intractable of issues. It may be that the time has come to bring the back channel conclusions out into the full light of day. They derive from the efforts of the previous government but may still offer a chance of bilateral reconciliation.
Ultimately, progress in Indo-Pak matters depends not so much on negotiations between experts as on the conviction and commitment of the leaders. The abiding model is Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus yatra, which was a direct thrust to the core of the matter. A comparable effort is needed today to achieve the results everyone desires. It may not be possible to resolve all issues in one go, but it will take a hard push from the top if we are to get anywhere.
The writer is a former foreign secretary
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