India’s re-engagement with Pakistan has been as dramatic as recent instances of bilateral discord. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif have surprised constituents, just as the latter were getting reconciled to a prolonged hiatus and the sense that both sides will settle into a state of mutual avoidance. The establishments are gratifyingly alert to the costs of non-engagement and have decided to press ahead with a ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’, which will feature issues discussed under the erstwhile ‘composite dialogue’.
This is the first time that New Delhi has agreed on a full-scope dialogue with Islamabad since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The NDA will face domestic criticism for resuming talks without definite progress on the Mumbai trials in Pakistan. The Modi government will argue that the joint statement accords high priority to terrorism and mentions that the “Indian side was assured of steps being taken” to expedite the trials. The NDA is liable to argue that all that has been agreed upon is a process and not an outcome on any of the thorny questions.
This is a sensible approach. Failure to engage with the neighbour does not serve any strategic purpose. It only serves to strengthen hardliners on both sides, weakens networks that are handy for defusing crises and encourages toxic rhetoric in the public sphere which drives the nations further apart. The future course will not be easy. Both countries have vastly different perspectives on the big issues like terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen and Afghanistan. But they are currently prompted to engage by prospects of cooperation and for counteracting the threat of terror. Pakistan’s struggling economy stands to benefit from more trade links with India, while the latter is interested in regional cooperation that can produce initiatives like the TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan, whose groundbreaking ceremony will be held on Sunday. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj spoke of the benefits that a more settled India-Pakistan relationship will have for Afghanistan, even as President Ashraf Ghani’s government is taking on an ascendant Taliban. Ms Swaraj made a strong pitch for transit rights to Afghanistan which Pakistan has been holding up and said it is time for New Delhi and Islamabad to “display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation”. The direction of travel seems clear. The challenge now is to not lose sight of those goals and make sure that non-state actors do not undermine dialogue yet again.