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A long way to go: PMs to meet

September 15, 2013

THERE is no room for cynicism where the scheduled meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh in New York later this month is concerned. Optimism is of course ruled out, but let us note the perilous background against which Sartaj Aziz and Salman Khurshid made their Bishkek rendezvous fruitful. While Mumbai 2008 continues to haunt the two sides, it was the unfortunate killings along Kashmir’s Line of Control which halted whatever little bit of movement there was on the peace front. Even the foreign secretaries failed to meet. At the Kyrgyz capital on Friday, Pakistan’s foreign affairs and security adviser and India’s external affairs minister had the good sense to clinch a deal, indicating that the two prime ministers will hopefully meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly session. The preceding backchannel diplomacy has after all made itself felt. This is no mean achievement, because the dreaded headlong flight into the unknown has been averted. Previous such meetings produced nothing. Former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Mr Singh met half a dozen times on the sidelines of this or that meeting — Thimphu, Mohali, Addu, Seoul, Sharm al-Sheikh and Tehran — but the outcome in each case was little to write home about. Then there was the celebrated lunch for Asif Ali Zardari at New Delhi in April last year, and despite the strong indications Mr Singh gave that he would visit Pakistan, the trip never materialised.

What the future holds defies a guess. Mr Sharif has just begun his third term as prime minister, while Mr Singh is in the twilight of his career. There is, thus, little the Indian prime minister can promise to his Pakistani counterpart, except good wishes. More important, India goes to the polls next year. This means, until the new government is in the saddle in New Delhi, it is the bureaucracy in the Indian external affairs ministry that will handle the bilateral relationship gingerly. For a few more months, thus, the peace process will be on hold.