Even those who are the most optimistic about India-Pakistan ties were not expecting such a turn of events. The first indication came when TV channels beamed the rare sight of the foreign secretaries of the two sides taking turns to read out a statement detailing the outcomes of the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The past few weeks have witnessed heated exchanges between the leadership of the two countries, especially after India’s cross-border raid in Myanmar and Pakistani nuclear sabre-rattling. Given this, the results of the meeting at Ufa, in Russia, come as a pleasant surprise.
Aside from the expected references to a collective responsibility to ensure peace and the discussion of outstanding issues, the statement spelt out how the two leaders intend to take forward bilateral relations through a set of incremental steps. The most significant of the five steps listed in the statement are planned meetings between security and military officials to discuss issues that have bedevilled ties the most since last year. The national security advisers will meet in Delhi to discuss all issues linked to terrorism. The move is timely, given the indications that the Islamic State has ambitions for the region.
The meetings between the heads of the BSF and Pakistan Rangers and the Directors General of Military Operations will provide an opportunity to stabilise the situation along the LoC and the international border, which have witnessed fierce exchanges recently. The mechanism for facilitating religious tourism and the release of fishermen languishing in each other’s jails are just the sort of steps that could generate goodwill which will allow the two PMs to make bolder decisions on more contentious issues in future. Trickier is the issue of taking forward the 26/11 attacks trial in Pakistan, which has been tangled in legal procedures and a tardy prosecution. It is good that the two sides will look at exchanging additional information such as voice samples but whether this will be enough to convince the judiciary in Pakistan remains to be seen.
There are sections of the Opposition that have dismissed the Modi-Sharif meeting as another photo opportunity but this is not the occasion to take such pot shots. The outcome of Friday’s meeting should be welcomed, simply for the reason that it marks a step forward after the interregnum in ties for more than a year. It is also good that Mr Modi has accepted an invitation to visit Pakistan, albeit for a Saarc summit next year. Perhaps this will give him and Mr Sharif, who doesn’t have the final say in foreign policy issues, enough time to make a real breakthrough in bilateral ties.