It is hard for public opinion to become too enthused about India and Pakistan. Most Indians are happy enough if nothing much is going on as that at least means the terrorists are attacking some other country. Nonetheless, there is probably no other foreign policy relationship that is so important to India. And there is no other foreign policy relationship so tortuous that it is difficult to determine what exactly passes for progress. The recent pronouncements by India and Pakistan in the Maldives return the relationship to where it was three years ago. Yet such is the convoluted nature of relations, that this can credibly be said to be a forward step. Only through the perspective of many years is it possible to get even a sense of policy direction. But even this must be adjusted to the shifting landscape of Pakistan's polity. This has deteriorated steadily over the years, undermining a capacity of Islamabad to even decide what its interests are.
It can be argued there has been at least one step that goes beyond the composite dialogue that existed before the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack. That is Pakistan's decision to extend most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status to India. There remain a few questions about how and when this will actually be implemented. But it is almost as important that there was such a broad consensus in favour of what used to be a highly contentious issue. At the core is an acceptance that the Pakistani economy is in such a battered state that it has to put aside its traditional 'no Kashmir, no trade' mantra. It also represents, one suspects, an unspoken recognition that given the trajectory of India's economy, there is no likelihood of being able to use trade as leverage. It is forcing through these small incremental steps in Islamabad's mindset that define the purpose of the dialogue. Major breakthroughs are unlikely. The possibility of disruption, by a terror attack or some political crisis is fairly high. The result is a twisted tale, but one that rolls out nonetheless.
The difficult part for India is that it must absorb and ultimately ignore the human costs of terrorist strikes on its soil. While the Pakistani side has made symbolic and rhetorical statements regarding 26/11, it seems obvious that nothing much should be expected when it comes to bringing the perpetrators to justice. New Delhi and Islamabad effectively go through the motions. The former's only expectation is that there should be no more such attacks. From a strategic view, India can afford to look the other way. Pakistan is under siege from within and from without. It is increasingly bogged down on its western front, in semi-conflict with Afghanistan and the United States. This seems to have made the military at least desirous of keeping relations with India on an even keel, and help lead to actions like the granting of MFN status. This will not satisfy the relatives of the 26/11 victims. But reasons of State unfortunately can only be rarely calculated on the basis of individual concerns. And with a country like Pakistan, this argument applies doubly.