IT was a delightful surprise on a special day: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopping by in Lahore to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On his birth anniversary, the Quaid-i-Azam would surely have approved. Much as Pakistan-India relations have the ability to disappoint and confound, they can occasionally spring a welcome surprise. Twelve years was 12 years too many for an Indian prime minister to have stayed away from Pakistan. Mr Sharif had already demonstrated last year that a visit to the other side of the border was not only possible, it could be done on relatively short notice. Deplorable as Mr Modi’s brinksmanship and insistence on a one-point agenda (terrorism) in talks with Pakistan is, his willingness to reverse himself and engage Pakistan should be welcomed by all right-thinking and sensible denizens of the two countries. The two states owe it to their peoples to work on normalising Pakistan-India relations. The 25th of December was an auspicious day to mark the possible beginning of a new era of stability in South Asia.
Yet, there are many questions that Mr Modi’s short trip to Lahore has not answered. Diplomacy — meaningful, result-oriented diplomacy — is serious business. It is not at all clear at this moment if what transpired in Lahore was part of a coherent, well-thought-out diplomatic strategy on the part of the Indian and Pakistani governments or just a glorified photo-op. Contrast the visit to Lahore with the earlier legs of Mr Modi’s trip to Russia and then Afghanistan. In those two countries, there were a range of substantive meetings and initiatives launched or inaugurated. In Lahore, neither the Pakistani nor the Indian prime minister announced anything meaningful. The news conference of Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was also devoid of any details or the steps to come. Raising public expectations — and putting hostile lobbies on alert in both countries — while keeping the details to a minimum can be a dangerous approach in the subcontinent. The Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue may be fleshed out in an anticipated meeting between the foreign secretaries next month — a deadline that should be adhered too. Mr Sharif’s trip to Delhi in May 2014 ought to be a reminder of what meetings without clear strategies for dialogue can lead to, ie nothing.
There is also the issue of how Mr Modi and his government will handle domestic elements hostile to the idea of talks with Pakistan. While Mr Modi’s solid poll numbers and his secure majority in parliament give him some room to manoeuvre, history suggests that even the most secure of political leaders can be thwarted by anti-peace hawks. Already there are voices — including, grimly, in the Congress itself — castigating Mr Modi for his outreach to Pakistan. The Indian public, the media and national-security institutions, will all have to be brought aboard. The days ahead will reveal if Mr Modi is serious about the business of peace.
Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2015