Sometimes a phone call is just a phone call. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephonic conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, passing on his best wishes for the cricket World Cup, prompted a measure of optimism in some quarters that bilateral ties may be on the mend again. However, the optics of the call and the unchanged political context offer little ground for hope.
Mr Modi’s call to Mr Sharif was among the conversations he had with other neighbours including the heads of government of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The Modi-Sharif conversation reportedly lasted 5-7 minutes, which says a lot about the strain in the relationship, particularly since the two leaders barely managed to exchange pleasantries at the Saarc summit at Kathmandu in November after the fallout over New Delhi calling off foreign secretary talks in August last year.
The prime minister has nonetheless announced that foreign secretary S Jaishankar will visit Islamabad and other capitals as part of his Saarc yatra. There is no mention yet about the dates for the visit — and even when it does take place, the agenda is expected to revolve around regional issues such as the Saarc satellite, medical visas, and easing travel regulations for businesses. There will assuredly be a bilateral dimension, in that there will be talks about talks as both sides try and gauge appetite for rebuilding trust and making progress.
The PM’s phone call is perhaps more of a gesture to the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir than it is to the United States, which is nudging New Delhi and Islamabad to resume negotiations. Making an overture to Islamabad serves to placate the PDP, which too has been calling for a dialogue with Pakistan. But the chasm between the two sides appears too wide to bridge for now.
Islamabad has made it clear that it wants Kashmir to be accorded a fairly central role in negotiations, which Delhi balks at; India seeks progress on the 26/11 Mumbai trials and wants Pakistan to dismantle its terror infrastructure. Politically there seems to be little incentive for both sides to end the impasse. Mr Sharif has done his bit for atmospherics this time by telling US President Barack Obama last week that India’s permanent membership at the UN Security Council is not acceptable to Islamabad.
The current policy of calibrated avoidance suits both sides politically but runs the risk of being overtaken by events, particularly when terrorist groups introduce their own dynamics to inter-State relations. It is also not a future-oriented posture as citizens expect governments to minimise risks and repair ties. The Indian and Pakistani regimes have previously surprised constituents with their bold moves in hostile scenarios. It is not clear if that will be repeated anytime soon.