NEW DELHI: There is no significant date on the India-Pakistan calendar until September, but with Imran Khan speaking on Thursday about the need to resume talks between the two countries, the dates could swing dramatically closer.

September 19 will see the cricket teams playing each other in the Asia Cup contest in Dubai. The same month the military contingents of the two countries will be having their first joint participation in Russia to combat terrorism together with other members of the Shanghai club.

While Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party looks set to form the next government, the good news from India’s point of view is that religious extremists have been shown the door by the watchful electorate. This could heighten the already existing chatter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be around to bless the new government in Islamabad along with other Saarc players should such an invite go out for the inauguration.

“More significant than who won is who lost,” said former minister Mani Shankar Aiyar in his blog. Urging India to resume talks with Pakistan he noted that Hafiz Saeed’s Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek fielded 50 candidates. All of them lost.

“The self-styled ‘Islam-pasand’ parties — the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Pakistan, the Milli Awami League, et al — banded together in a new political alliance called the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal… lost almost all the seats they contested, not just in Punjab but even on their home ground in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

They had “failed to fulfil Pak Senator Sherry Rehman’s nightmare, revealed on election night on one of our TV channels, of terrorists filling the ranks of the Pakistan National Assembly,” Mr Aiyar noted with cheer.

“The mainstream of Pakistan’s public opinion is remarkably like India’s: deeply religious but very wary of basing politics on religion, and wedded to the ballot rather than the bullet.”

“I really want to fix our ties,” Mr Khan said to India in an address on Thursday. “You take one step forward, we will take two.”

The 65-year-old former captain of Pakistan cricket team said he was a “little disappointed” the way Indian media has portrayed him “like a Bollywood villain... as though all will be bad if I come to power…I have widely travelled in India because of cricket and I want good relations with India,” he said in a half-hour address as the opposition cried foul.

Among those who have wagered on an improvement in India-Pakistan ties is former Indian spy chief A.S. Dulat. He believes that relations would improve dramatically before the 2019 Indian elections.

It may thus not be unthinkable that relations are going to look up in a more durable way.

There is chatter in the Indian media whether the winner in Islamabad would invite Mr Modi to the new government’s swearing in.

The late Shujaat Bukhari had spoken knowledgeably in his Srinagar-based newspaper about the possible revival of the stalled Saarc summit in Pakistan. There is rumour of talks being held regularly between the National Security Advisers of the two sides.

Mr Aiyar was not particularly hopeful of an early breakthrough though he said he wanted talks to resume soon.

“I seriously doubt that the BJP (or, for that matter, any major Indian political party) is willing to pick up the thread that Dr Manmohan Singh left behind, for ever since Sharm-el-Sheikh 2009, the consensual chorus has been that ‘talks and terror can’t go together’, with little acceptance of the statistically proven fact that without talks, terror only goes up, and that to end terror, talks are of the essence”.

Mr Aiyar noted that since Havana 2007, the two have barely taken any constructive steps to operationalise the Indo-Pak agreement to jointly establish an Anti-Terror Mechanism.

The September military exercise could change that.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2018

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