At one level it was disappointing that the only thing prime ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif could accomplish in New York was a wave of the hand. They spent several days in the same hotel and shared space under the same roof at the peacekeeping meeting but the two merely acknowledged each other.
But think about it again. May be it was just as well that the two--who head nations that share history and geography--didn’t go beyond the smiles and the wave of the hand . Given the recent acrimony over the cancelled National Security Advisors dialogue, what new ground could the two have broken even if they had met.
The hawks, within government, civil society and the media on both sides had already hijacked and derailed the fledgling dialogue process agreed on between Modi and Sharif in Ufa, Russia, in July. By the third week of August, when Sartaj Aziz was to travel to India for the NSA-level dialogue, both sides were sabre-rattling and with each accusation and counter-accusation hurled, the two only locked themselves into their individual stated positions.
What then would a meeting have really achieved?
At best it would have been a photo op in which analysts and strategic experts would have probably ended up discussing the body language of the two leaders. And if Modi and Sharif had bumped into each other in Waldorf Astoria, the hotel in which they stayed, both sides would have briefed the media about the jab we met moment to say what we already know and have heard ad nauseam. India would have reiterated its commitment to discussing only terrorism and Pakistan would have said they want talks on all issues including Kashmir. The hawks on both sides would’ve thumped their chests and scored more brownie points.
It is to break away from this very mould that India and Pakistan need to work slowly but surely towards setting new rules of engagement for themselves. The two countries can draw even on recent history to know that that’s possible. Atal Behari Vajpayee did that in the aftermath of Kargil and again after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. After first positioning the army at the border in an eyeball-to-eyeball stance, Vajpayee offered an olive branch to General Musharraf by inviting him to Agra for talks.
Why only Vajpayee, the Modi government too worked behind the scenes after it abruptly called off foreign secretary-level talks in August last year after objecting to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meetings with the separatists. Then too, India and Pakistan had painted their relationship into a corner and when the two Prime Ministers met in Kathmandu for the SAARC Summit, the questions was the same: will the two meet, will they shake hands or not.
For months after that, Basit and Indian NSA, Ajit Doval held several off-camera, unpublicized meetings which finally led to a thaw and saw the foreign secretary go to Islamabad even if it was under the guise of a SAARC yatra.
Once again, the two sides need to meet and understand each other’s domestic compulsions on the issues of terrorism and Kashmir. It is imperative that they do this for the next meeting looms in the near future. Islamabad is hosting the next SAARC summit and Modi has, in principle, already accepted Sharif’s invitation. Neither side should want to waste the opportunity.