The word “historic” has been worn by ill-use when it comes to things to do with India-Pakistan peacemaking. Even so, the significance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to resume comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan must not be underestimated. Elected after a campaign redolent with hawkish polemic on Pakistan, the prime minister went on to preside over the largest exchanges of fire on the Line of Control since the Kargil War.
His decision now must make it clear to its detractors that the case for India-Pakistan dialogue rests not on liberal fantasy, but hard-headed strategic considerations. No one believes that the new round of dialogue will end Pakistan’s sponsorship of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or bring justice to the victims of 26/11. The truth is, however, that the status quo suits India, the dominant power, considerably more than it does Pakistan. Engagement offers the prospect of entrenching this status quo by deepening trade relationships, and solving at least some problems. India could, it is true, use covert or conventional military means to punish Pakistan for its sponsorship of terrorism — but, like his predecessors, PM Modi has realised that the dividends of such a course would be uncertain, and the consequences possibly catastrophic.
It is important to remember, however, that dialogue is a process, not an outcome. The core problem with the Composite Dialogue process, which began in 1998, was not its interruption — by the war in 1999, the 2001-02 crisis, and 26/11 — but its failure to achieve results. India and Pakistan came to the edge of a deal on the Siachen Glacier in 2007-08, only for New Delhi to back away, fearful of public opposition. In turn, Pakistan stalled progress on trade, proved obstructive on road access to Afghanistan, and was reluctant to reach a deal on Sir Creek till India made progress on Siachen. India and Pakistan, we now know, were in striking range of an agreement on Kashmir in 2007, when Pervez Musharraf was swept from power and the Pakistan army reached the determination that it did not want to proceed down that road. Though big issues like Kashmir might not be within reach just yet, there is no shortage of things to be done. Modi’s overwhelming majority in Parliament allows him the room and the cushion to deliver where his predecessor was hobbled — and the legitimacy needed to persuade the public on unpopular decisions.
Progress will only be possible, though, if both sides show wisdom and seriousness of purpose — something neither country’s foreign policy has been distinguished by. India’s relationships with its neighbours have become increasingly fraught; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his part, has presided over an extraordinary souring of Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan. The stakes in India-Pakistan engagement are just too high for such missteps. The moment of glory is done. The hard work starts now.