It is only two years ago, but it was another era altogether in India-Pakistan relations when the prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, issued a joint statement at the 2015 summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in Ufa. The statement “agreed that India and Pakistan have a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development”. Both leaders also “condemned terrorism in all its forms and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate this menace from South Asia”. The promise of Ufa managed to surmount a domestic challenge to Sharif over the non-mention of Kashmir in the joint statement, after it was projected by the Indian side as a “victory”. It even struck some high notes, such as the visit by Modi to Lahore that December. But the free fall since the Pathankot attack in January 2016 has continued, plumbing new depths with each new episode in this mega-series. If the sentiments expressed in that 2015 joint statement by the Indian side are not false, Prime Minister Modi must stretch his hand out to Sharif at Astana, the Kazakhstan capital, where this year’s SCO summit is being held, to break the fall.
Truly, nothing stops the Indian prime minister from doing this. He is India’s most popular leader at this moment. Modi has sold something as taboo as toilets to rural India and as radical as demonetisation to the Indian public. The electorate has made it clear that it is willing even to suffer economic hardship because it believes in Prime Minister Modi. Surely then, Modi is the leader who should carry the enormous burden of normalising relations between India and Pakistan. It is a given that the Pakistan Army will oppose every such attempt, and terrorists will try to sabotage it. But it is also true that cross-border terrorists have struck even during this long hiatus in India-Pakistan dialogue. According to the Centre, during this period, Pakistan has been actively fomenting trouble in Kashmir. So it should be clear now that there are no returns from not talking. Modi is the only leader today who can persuade India of this.
If Modi can use his tremendous political goodwill to continually make efforts for peace in South Asia, whatever the obstacles, he might even be hailed as a world statesman. On the other hand, imagine the consequences of India’s most popular leader in three decades turning away from a responsibility, shared though it might be, to ensure peace and promote development in the region.