Go Beyond a Handshake

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With the exception of a handshake on the margins of the 18th SAARC summit at Kathmandu, Nepal, in November 2014, the history of India- Pakistan engagement over the past year has been one of false starts. Just when it was thought that the two nuclear-armed neighbours would build on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s participation at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration, came the news of India calling off foreign secretary-level talks.

The 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly was a complete washout, too, with neither side making any attempt to renew contacts. Some notional progress was sought to be achieved when Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar travelled to Pakistan earlier this year. His visit, at the very least, served to keep up the pretences of a conversation going, albeit in fits and starts.

A pattern is clearly emerging but it remains to be seen how far, if at all, would Islamabad be willing to go along with New Delhi in their mutual quest for a breakthrough. For one, the Modi Government has sought to reset the terms of engagement after a decade of Manmohan Singh’s relentless pursuit of talks in the hope of making incremental progress on trade and people to- people ties, aided in no small measure by the cross-border love for cricket — as evidenced by Musharraf’s visit to Delhi in 2005 and Yousaf Raza Gilani’s to Mohali in 2011.

Second, and this is the more significant of the two, the Modi Government has dropped enough hints already that it does not set great store by symbolic (and shambolic, too?) meetings on the margins of multilateral summits that were a leitmotif of the Manmohan era. A case in point: The 2009 Manmohan-Gilani meeting on the sidelines of the nam summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt.

The joint statement issued towards the end of the talks said, among other things, that “Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan” and “action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” The Congress party distanced itself from the statement and the then foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, conceded that “you can say it is bad drafting”. Then there were the NAM summits in Cuba, 2006 and Iran, 2012; ASEM summit in China, 2008; UNGA in New York, 2008 and 2013; SCO summit in Russia, 2009; and SAARC summits in Bhutan, 2010 and Maldives, 2011.

The leaders of India and Pakistan are expected to travel to UFA in Russia for the SCO summit in July. Should a possible encounter between the two leaders remain just a photo-op, is a question for them to ponder.

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