Salman Bashir, the new Pakistani high commissioner and his country’s former foreign secretary, said something last Sunday that made me sit up and think, “I would say there has been a sea-change in (the) Pakistan-India relationship.” He was, of course, talking about style and rhetoric, what others might call atmospherics, rather than issues of substance but, even so, it’s a point many of us have missed. Perhaps we’re so used to the acrimony and cross-talk of the past we’ve failed to notice its absence.
However, let’s start with the facts. They, too, are remarkable. First, in April, when he visited Delhi, Pakistan President Asif Zardari is reported to have told Dr Manmohan Singh that India and Pakistan should emulate India and China and build the relationship by boosting trade. Then, 10 days later, foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar told this paper: “Our intention is to solve the Kashmir problem but let us start with less complicated problems.” And she pointedly added: “We will trust India more in whatever we do. We are clear on this.” Third, and amazingly still in the same month, General Ashfaq Kayani, who matters more than anyone else, said: “Peaceful co-existence is very necessary for both countries. There is no doubt about that.”
Jump now to the foreign secretary talks of earlier this month. First, on terror we heard very different language to what we’ve been subjected to in the past. In February 2010, Pakistan dismissed India’s evidence on terror as “a piece of literature”. This month Jalil Jilani, their new foreign secretary, said, “Pakistan will support India in its fight against terror.” The contrast could not be clearer.
Second, Kashmir was no longer a disruptive issue. In 2010, Pakistan was insistent on its primacy: “Kashmir was discussed extensively … one cannot be dismissive about the issue of Kashmir.” This month Mr Jilani was much more relaxed about the subject. The phrase ‘core issue’ was not even heard once while Kashmir itself appeared in the joint statement as point 6, after terror.
Is this misleading or are the two countries learning to handle Kashmir and terror with less acrimony and more accommodation? “Yes” is Salman Bashir’s positive answer. It may be brief but he determinedly stuck by it when asked if he was absolutely certain.
So does all of this suggest a change in the way Pakistan perceives its relationship with India? Once again, listen to Mr Bashir’s response: “I would certainly say there is a sincere intent (to do so).”
Incidentally, our foreign minister’s answer is no different, although apart from this paper none other has paid much attention to it. Asked about India-Pakistan relations on July 3, the day before the foreign secretary talks, Mr Krishna said: “There is no longer that acrimony, there is no longer that animosity that used to be there earlier on. Now I think the language of goodwill is beginning to talk.” Perhaps, more importantly, he added: “Our relationship has not been really held (to) ransom by terror.”
It’s this changed atmosphere that, I believe, explains the resumption of India-Pak cricket. Even though the calendar is crowded, with Australia and England both touring in the winter, Pakistan has been squeezed in because India wants to reciprocate.
Now, I’ll add, it’s time for Dr Manmohan Singh to visit Islamabad. His trip would cement the change in mood and style and could facilitate a similar shift in substance. Let him not wait for something concrete to emerge. A generous gesture could make it happen.
Views expressed by the author are personal