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Reviving Pak-India ties

Updated April 29, 2017

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The perilous state of Pakistan-India relations ought to be a matter of urgent concern for both state and society in the two countries.

Anything done to nudge open a door to dialogue or prevent a further deterioration in relations should be welcomed. Yet, a perplexing and disturbing campaign of suspicion and mistrust has been unleashed against the PML-N government following the revelation that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has met with Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal, known to be a personal friend and emissary of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Remarkably, the PPP too has added its voice to the chorus of condemnation, the party seemingly willing to cast aside all good sense in a desperate bid to damage the PML-N in any way it can. Some perspective is essential here.

The PML-N has done itself few favours with its inept handling of the backlash in some sections of the media and the public. First daughter Maryam Nawaz’s tweet about the meeting between Prime Minister Sharif and Mr Jindal was patronising and tone deaf.

Political ineptness though does not invalidate the likely idea behind the meeting. Every government has come to understand and embrace the benefit of back channels in the Pakistan-India relationship.

Former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf used back-channel negotiations to open a dialogue on a possible permanent settlement of the Kashmir dispute. His foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, has publicly reiterated the value of back channels in recent days. In the current scenario, the Indian media itself has speculated that Mr Jindal’s visit to Pakistan may be a prelude to a meeting between Mr Sharif and Mr Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kazakhstan in June.

Mr Jindal as a trusted emissary of the Indian prime minister and, in Maryam Nawaz’s own telling, a friend of Mr Sharif is well placed to be an interlocutor. Ought not the elected prime minister of the country have the prerogative to arrange a meeting with the Indian prime minister?

If a meeting does take place in June, what remains to be seen is if the leaders can find a way to not only re-establish dialogue but to put it on a sustainable path.

The flurry of high-level diplomacy in late 2015, with the two prime ministers meeting during the Paris climate summit and Mr Sharif hosting Mr Modi in his Raiwind home during a surprise stopover by the Indian prime minister, produced a decision to restart talks, rebranded as full-spectrum dialogue. But the Pathankot attack derailed the process.

The so-called terror proofing of dialogue ought to be one of the main planks of any fresh effort to restart talks; a difficult task, but one that is clearly necessary. The two prime ministers must explain to their respective nations why dialogue is the only option.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2017