Every time leaders of India and Pakistan sit down to discuss bilateral relations, the usual refrain is: so what’s new? For far too long, the general perception has been that both sides merely address their domestic constituencies and demonstrate that they had not changed direction while getting on with the job of making peace. It would be naïve to expect things to be different this time round, as Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee begins talks today with his Pakistani counterpart Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a day after foreign secretaries of the two countries met to review progress in the peace process. This is the first high-level meeting between New Delhi and Islamabad since multi-party democracy was restored in Pakistan in February.
The peace dialogue was stalled last year because of political turmoil there when President Pervez Musharraf imposed Emergency rule. In that sense, there is room for guarded optimism now, considering there is a Parliament to deal with in Pakistan — and not just one man taking all the decisions. In any case, these parleys will help assess the progress made in the so-called composite dialogue process that covers outstanding issues between the two countries. They include peace and security, confidence-building measures, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage, terrorism and drugs trafficking, and economic and commercial cooperation and promotion of friendly exchanges. No one expects any breakthroughs at this summit, not least because Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s fledgling administration is in no position to assert itself. Several ministers withdrew from it last week when the main coalition partners failed to agree on reinstating judges fired by President Musharraf. And since the Kashmir issue is too deeply embedded in the minds of Pakistan’s military and political leaders for more than half a century, it is too much to expect any new government to quickly revert to a purely political bilateral exchange with India on the issue.
But that is no reason for New Delhi to mince words about the continuing cross-border terrorism and infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan into India. The new political dispensation in Pakistan should learn from the past when Islamabad used terrorism as a strategic weapon in the subcontinent, only to have it turn on Pakistan. Old habits die hard, but they do die if they are dropped. Pakistan now has a chance to break a bad habit.