Renewed talks offer

Updated June 09, 2019

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AS Narendra Modi kicks off his second term in office as India’s prime minister, it is unclear what approach he intends to adopt towards Pakistan.

Will Mr Modi continue with the bellicose anti-Pakistan rhetoric that was witnessed for most of his first term to please his hard-line Hindu support base? Or will he turn the page and attempt to pursue dialogue with this country to break the ice in South Asia?

While the messages coming from New Delhi are mixed, Islamabad is clear in its vision: let both nations come to the negotiating table and find a way forward to shed the animosity of the past seven decades — and counting — and attempt a new start in South Asia. This was the gist of the letter Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote recently to his Indian counterpart to congratulate him on his election victory. In the letter, the prime minister reiterated this country’s resolve to discuss all outstanding issues, including militancy and the long-festering Kashmir dispute. Mr Khan added that both countries needed to join forces against poverty and underdevelopment.

Considering that the two countries were at the brink of war only a few months ago, the need for dialogue cannot be overstated. Especially now that Prime Minister Modi is done electioneering, perhaps he can seize the opportunity and take bold steps where the bilateral relationship with Pakistan is concerned. There are indeed powerful lobbies on both sides that will not want a normalisation of ties.

But both leaderships must look at the bigger picture — the future of over a billion people in South Asia — and work towards achieving a permanent peace for the development and progress of the region.

In this regard, while Pakistan has been gracious and showed forbearance, many in India have exhibited belligerent, warlike behaviour and arrogance when addressing Pakistan. The government showed grace by returning Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman during the height of the stand-off in February, while senior functionaries in Pakistan — from the prime minister down — have said they are ready for dialogue. Yet it needs to be seen if India is ready to reciprocate.

There seemed to be a brief thaw as the foreign ministers exchanged pleasantries in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek last month. However, nothing substantive came out of that chance encounter.

Both premiers will be attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting (also to be held in Kyrgyzstan) next week. While the Indian side has said no bilateral meetings are planned at the event, it would be wise for both leaderships to seek out this — or any other mutually convenient opportunity — and attempt to normalise relations.

Let both start with the ‘soft’ issues (CBMs, people-to-people contact) and work their way up to the major issues (Kashmir, violence). It is clear that if these opportunities are lost, then only further turbulence is likely in one of the most tortured geopolitical relationships in the world.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2019