Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan should be welcomed. The road to peace is a dangerous one, and the crowds that line it are there, in the main, waiting to see those who walk it step on a landmine. Less than 16 weeks after India-Pakistan talks collapsed because New Delhi declined to discuss Kashmir until talks on terrorism were held first, the prime minister has reversed course, knowing it would provoke Opposition uproar, and consternation within his own ranks. The talks between the national security advisors and foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan held in Bangkok on Sunday conceded to Pakistan the engagement on Kashmir it sought in August, when dialogue between the two countries collapsed. India agreed, moreover, to hold talks in a third country — a possibility it had shot down earlier — in order to help Pakistan avoid a meeting with Kashmiri secessionists. Like prime ministers before him, Modi has come to realise India just cannot afford to lurch into a confrontation because of miscalculation or misstep — and that the possibility of such errors multiplies. The prime minister does well to recognise and act on the need for a course correction. The Congress’s anti-talks polemic might be expedient, but it does the party leadership no credit.
Everywhere in the world, bitter adversaries have maintained engagement, hoping to avoid even worse outcomes. The United States and the Soviet Union pursued nuclear détente even as they were locked in a murderous war-by-proxy in Afghanistan. Turkey and Russia have continued to talk as tensions between the two have spiralled upwards. It is no one’s case that talks will resolve intractable problems between the two neighbours — be it Kashmir, or Pakistan’s continued backing to terrorists — but they do open up a possibility of incremental progress towards peace.
For the talks to prove sustainable, however, results must become apparent to publics in both countries. Both governments must focus on plucking low-hanging fruit, like the Sir Creek issue. In the longer term, India must bring both carrot and stick to the table to secure what it seeks on terrorism. In turn, Pakistan must conceive of a workable agenda on Kashmir, not grandstanding directed at a domestic audience. Failure to show results will breed public cynicism, and leave the talks vulnerable to breakdown. The second challenge will be to protect the dialogue from acts of terrorism. Delhi must have a clear roadmap for how it means to deal with the challenges, for the history of India-Pakistan peacemaking teaches us that failure always lurks just around the corner.