The invitation to Pakistan’s Commerce Minister Pervaiz Malik to participate in a WTO ministerial meeting in March, albeit as part of a larger group of commerce ministers, is welcome. In the worst of times and in the best of times, Delhi must keep the door ajar for dialogue. Only from sustained and mutually respectful conversation can solutions to the most intractable problems emerge. Even more significant is the decision by both sides to release all prisoners in each other’s jails, especially those seen to be “most vulnerable,” including women and children and the mentally unstable. It is highly unlikely the Kulbhushan Jadhav case will figure as Pakistan deems him a spy — which India robustly denies — and his case is ongoing in the International Court of Justice.
As the Narendra Modi government enters the final year of its term in office, it seems to have evolved a more granular understanding of Pakistan. Certainly, Delhi’s friendship with Kabul has helped it to form a clearer picture of the destabilising nature of the Pakistani state — read, its army and ISI. At the same time, US President Donald Trump has understood that Pakistan must be globally named and shamed, as the Financial Action Task Force did in Paris over the weekend, if it doesn’t stop using terrorism as a tool of state policy, which also hurts American interests. This is why it’s the perfect time for Delhi to play the good cop. To follow up invitations to multilateral events and a prisoner exchange with steps that encourage ordinary people to meet each other; perhaps have lunch in Amritsar and dinner in Lahore or vice-versa as well as across the Thar desert in Jodhpur and Karachi, while unlocking the old idea of using trade, investment and energy pipelines to soften lines on the map. As for Jammu & Kashmir, Delhi must necessarily secure the border and the LoC, but breathing new life into cross-LoC travel and trade escrow accounts could be a way of easing tensions within the BJP-PDP coalition.
In the year of the 20th anniversary of their nuclear tests, both India and Pakistan know that the point of dialogue is not peace and friendship, but normalcy. The freedom to like and love and play cricket as well as to be indifferent towards the western neighbour could be Prime Minister Modi’s legacy as he goes into elections in 2019. For now, his government must be congratulated for having, once again, taken the first step.