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A MEETING with the lowest of expectations to begin with went off without a hitch yesterday. In the larger India-Pakistan dynamic, that a meeting was held at all is perhaps a small victory — such is the unhappy history between the two countries. On the positive side, the post-meeting press briefings eschewed hard-hitting statements and it became clear that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif believe that normalisation of ties is the desired outcome between India and Pakistan. Less salubriously, neither side was willing to engage in conversation about how exactly ties are to be moved towards the goal of normalisation. For a relationship that has been fraught from its 66-year-old beginning, words do not count for much anymore, only actions will suffice.

Must it necessarily be pessimism that characterises the ebb and flow of India-Pakistan relations though? While the politicians and diplomats meet and shake hands and offer up anodyne sound bites for the media, the temptation to view it from a prism of unremitting cynicism may be great. However, there is some room for cautious realism, if not optimism. Without a shadow of a doubt, Mr Sharif believes that Pakistan’s progress lies, in great part, in the normalisation of ties with India, be it through trade, people crossing borders freely or cross-border investment. And now in the fag end of his prime ministerial career, Mr Singh has demonstrated that even when under extreme pressure domestically, he will keep the door to talks with Pakistan open.

Beyond that, however, there is the reality of ties staying in limbo — India complaining about non-action on the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan’s inability to muzzle jihadi elements and, now, cross-LoC violence; Pakistan, for its part, complaining that India is unwilling to take up core and old issues, be it Kashmir or the so-called low-hanging fruit of Sir Creek and Siachen. Ultimately, as this newspaper and many others have argued, improving the India-Pakistan equation will depend on tremendous political will by each country’s political leadership. Much was expected of Mr Sharif in this regard, but so far he’s preferred to play his hand very carefully, almost to the point of inaction. As for Mr Singh, hammered at home on various fronts and going into an election that will almost certainly see him replaced, time has all but run out. Perhaps all India and Pakistan can hope for now is that the next year brings tangible improvements.