India and Pakistan are unlikely to make any rapid progress in resuming their peace talks when foreign secretary S Jaishankar visits Islamabad next month to begin the slow and tortuous process of trying to put stalled bilateral relations back on track.
The bilateral composite dialogue process, for all practical purposes, has been dead in the water for some time now and the two sides have not been able to decide on a format that should replace it.
Efforts to improve relations by focussing on trade never took off because Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) party linked it with progress on other matters like the Kashmir issue after coming to power in the 2013 general election.
"It's being expected that both sides should get out of the positions they have boxed themselves into. But at the moment, that may not be easy given the belligerence shown by (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and the fragile nature of the dispensation in Pakistan," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies.
"Pakistan will welcome any resumption of contacts with relief but it remains to be seen whether India sticks to its demands," Gul told Hindustan Times.
Jaishankar's visit to Pakistan on March 3 is being billed as part of a Saarc Yatra but Islamabad is clearly looking at the visit as an opportunity to take forward the bilateral ties after a freeze that has lasted six months.
But the feeling among diplomats and analysts on both sides is that when Jaishankar comes face to face with his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry in Islamabad, the talks will be about more talks and meetings.
Modi set the ball rolling when he telephoned several Saarc leaders, including his Pakistani counterpart, on February 13 to convey his best wishes for their cricket teams ahead of the World Cup. Modi also announced the Saarc Yatra by the foreign secretary.
India may have resorted to linking Jaishankar's visit to the Saarc grouping because of the insistence by Pakistani leaders like National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz that New Delhi should take the first step to break the deadlock, said Ajay Darshan Behera, coordinator of the Centre for Pakistan Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University's Academy of International Studies.
"The deadlock had continued for a long time and conveying best wishes for the World Cup was almost a pretext. We have to continue this process. Both sides have been treating (the talks process) like a game, calling it off and playing to the gallery," Behera told HT.
India called off a meeting between the foreign secretaries in August last year after Pakistani envoy Abdul Basit met Hurriyat leaders in New Delhi despite being asked not to do so by the external affairs ministry. Ties further nosedived after a sudden surge in fierce exchanges of fire along the Line of Control.
In recent weeks, the two sides prepared the grounds for a re-engagement during several meetings held behind the scenes. The Indian side insisted that Pakistan should separate its consultations with Hurriyat leaders from any formal bilateral talks process, while Pakistan said any dialogue would have to focus on all outstanding topics and not just "soft" issues like trade.
Reports have suggested that the People's Democratic Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party's new partner in Jammu and Kashmir, insisted on the resumption of engagement with Pakistan during negotiations on forging a coalition government. This issue, sources said, is likely to be reflected in the "Agenda of the Alliance" that will soon be issued by the two parties.
Islamabad has been wary of engaging the BJP-led government in New Delhi because, Pakistani diplomats say, Modi's invitation to Sharif to attend his swearing-in last year was not followed up by more "meaningful steps". As one Pakistani diplomat pointed out, Sharif was answerable to his domestic constituency and could not be perceived as soft on India.
On the other hand, Indian officials said New Delhi continues to have pressing concerns about Islamabad's efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Though 7 suspects, including Lashkar-e-Taiba operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, were charged with planning and executing the assault, there has been very little progress in their trial which began in 2009.
India was angered when a Pakistani court granted bail to Lakhvi just days after people across the country had expressed their solidarity with Pakistanis following a deadly Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. The Pakistan government has since opposed the bail granted to Lakhvi and has detained him on other charges.
Gul said the evolving situation in Afghanistan could be one area where India and Pakistan could cooperate.
"This is the best common denominator, especially with the involvement of China. It could be the best ground for engagement without getting tangled in bilateral issues," he said.