Over the past few days, India and Pakistan have resembled two wary boxers sizing each other up before a title match. But political shadow-boxing is no way to take on the weighty issues that have bedevilled relations for nearly seven decades.
Pakistan’s contention that India crossed a red line when Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of rights violations in Balochistan would perhaps have carried some weight if Islamabad itself had not violated so many red lines in its dealings with New Delhi.
There are some who have taken comfort in the fact that Pakistan has offered talks and that India has responded, but with caveats. But the maximalist positions adopted by both sides on the agenda for the proposed talks appears to suggest that the two countries will once again get bogged down without making any progress towards a substantial dialogue.
The Comprehensive Dialogue that the two sides had agreed to launch only last December appears to be dead in the water, and Pakistan has gone back to insisting that the talks should centre around the Kashmir issue. That is understandable because the Nawaz Sharif government does not want to concede any more ground to the powerful military at a time when it is grappling with charges of corruption and poor governance.
The Indian side has made cross-border terrorism the issue it wants to discuss and that too is understandable. Many in India still remember the horror and carnage of the Mumbai attacks and how Pakistan is yet to bring the perpetrators of that brazen assault to justice. The Narendra Modi government also does not want to be perceived as soft in its dealings with Pakistan ahead of crucial elections in several states.
But the back and forth dialogue of the deaf we have witnessed in the past few days is self-defeating and tedious, and perhaps it would be more realistic if the two sides were to take a step back and propose discussions on less contentious issues such as trade and people-to-people contacts, on which considerable work has already been done.
It is worthwhile to recall what Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari had suggested in March 2008 — that India and Pakistan should not be held hostage by the Kashmir issue, which should be left aside for future generations to resolve.
This is a tough ask, given the entrenched positions that the two sides have dug themselves into. But anything is possible with political will, which both Prime Ministers have demonstrated — when Sharif took up his Indian counterpart’s invitation to his swearing-in, and when Modi suddenly flew to Lahore last December to wish his Pakistani counterpart on his birthday. They both owe it to the people of the two countries not to get engaged in a slugfest without end.