Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif have taken the bold decision to move beyond recent recriminations and resume high-level negotiations via the meeting of national security advisers, Ajit Doval and Nasir Khan Janjua, in Bangkok on Sunday. After a phase where mutual outreach was marred by disagreements over the agenda of talks and objections about Kashmiri separatists meeting the Pakistan leadership, this initiative is an important one to prevent further the hardening of establishment positions and polarisation of the two societies.
That said, the fact that the NSAs had to meet in Bangkok rather than in their own capitals says a lot about the fraught climate that bilateral ties operate in. A lot of it has to do with the charged rhetoric in the public sphere concerning ties with Pakistan.
At a time when cultural events featuring Pakistani writers and artistes cannot be held without controversy or scheduling cricket matches becomes an intensely political exercise, it is no surprise that the NSAs decided to have their conversation at a third location, away from the exaggerated media anticipation and scrutiny that generates its own political effects. In many ways, this situation highlights the ways in which public opinion can constrain establishments.
Both governments will need to proactively nudge foreign policy debates in a helpful direction through high-level contact and nuanced, consistent messaging on the direction of policy.
The NSAs will have had a chance to convey perceptions, articulate concerns and priorities, and gauge power dynamics on the other side. It is useful that the two sides have had the frank exchanges prior to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s participation in the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad this week — to take forward discussions rather than have a symbolic visit that avoids difficult conversations.
The NSA talks indicate that India and Pakistan understand the need to engage and that the security interests of both countries have to take precedence over the domestic benefits of posturing. India is focusing on economic reforms amid a competitive political landscape even as it faces a fluid geopolitical climate both in an unstable West Asia and a changing East Asia, owing to the rise of China. An adversarial relationship with Pakistan under these circumstances is not in India’s long-term interest. From increasing the nuclear arsenal to continuing instability in Afghanistan, unrest in Kashmir, and the threat that non-state actors pose to bilateral ties, there is plenty for both sides to deliberate on and transact.