Foreign secretary S Jaishankar will visit Islamabad next week, as part of his ‘Saarc yatra’ that will also take him to Thimphu, Dhaka and Kabul. He will interact with principals at posts he has not had a chance to serve in and, more significantly, his tour will reaffirm the NDA’s intent to consolidate ties and enhance influence in South Asia. Recent experience has shown that India cannot expect neighbourhood policy to evolve constructively on autopilot. The region needs careful political attention since Beijing is only too happy to compensate for New Delhi’s distractions by cultivating a string of substantive relationships along India’s periphery. Bangladesh’s trade with China is, for instance, worth $8 billion, more than the $6.6 billion that it transacts with India. New Delhi also saw differences on the question of Tamil rights with the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka translate into strategic setbacks as the latter began to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at Colombo.
Mr Jaishankar’s appointment confers on him a heft that will be recognised by his hosts. His visit to Islamabad is important as it signals New Delhi’s intent to address the Pakistan-related exceptionalism in India’s outreach to the neighbourhood. There are glimmers of a thaw as evinced by Mr Modi’s call to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif earlier this month to wish him ahead of the cricket World Cup. There are indications that the Centre — following on the PDP-BJP deal in Jammu and Kashmir — is planning on opening at least eight new routes for trade across the Line of Control. That will offer an avenue of discussion that goes beyond the persisting thorny issues. Both sides have got past the issue of Islamabad interacting with Kashmiri separatists by getting Pakistan to agree to disengage contact from the bilateral calendar but wider disagreements on Kashmir and terrorism remain. The prosecution of the Mumbai attacks masterminds remains a key obstacle for shifting Indian public attitudes on Pakistan while the direction of the discussions on Kashmir remain unclear.
The government has, however, done the right thing to re-engage with Islamabad. Both countries cannot continue to be in a state of unremitting hostility for long without violent consequences as seen in the intensive cross-border firing in recent months. There are gains in trade that business interests on both sides look forward to. And there are wider strategic calculations at play too. Fraught India-Pakistan ties can make Kabul choose between New Delhi and Islamabad. It is not in India’s interest to put President Ashraf Ghani in an awkward spot even as he looks to forge close ties with Pakistan.