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Improving ties

July 17, 2012

IN an interview with an Indian news channel a day after presenting his credentials to the Indian president, Salman Bashir, the new high commissioner to India, has said that “the atmospherics have witnessed a sea change” in the relationship between Pakistan and India. Mr Bashir may well be right and in a relationship as fraught and contentious as the one between the two South Asian neighbours ‘atmospherics’ are nothing to be scoffed at. However, there is a sense that rather than Mr Bashir’s upbeat assessment, the relationship is drifting again. Trade negotiations have been bogged down in minutiae, a more liberal visa regime has seemingly been stalled and there’s next to nothing to show on the fiendishly more difficult fronts: Kashmir, Siachen and terrorism.

Perhaps what can reinvigorate the push for normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan is the much talked about but never quite near enough visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan. Intransigence and stubbornness of the security and foreign-policy establishments on both sides is almost a given, so it comes down to finding someone who can rise about the calcified and ossified positions of old and drag ties forward. Throughout his tenure as prime minister, Mr Singh has appeared to be the man who could possibly make it happen — but time is running out. Weakened domestically and unable to find a partner in Pakistan who is willing to meet him half way, the space for Prime Minister Singh to manoeuvre on Pakistan has certainly diminished a great deal. Here on the Pakistani side, the demand for ‘progress on all fronts’ has been wielded as a soft veto by the army-led security establishment on improving trade and visa relations. The thought behind that may well be that when Pakistan first signalled its intention to move ahead on certain subjects, it hoped that India would reciprocate by offering talks and the hope of stepping back from rigid Indian positions on other subjects. But then the Indian side appeared to want to keep the focus of the talks narrow and Pakistan’s interest diminished.

Certainly, from the Indian side, the shadow of the Mumbai attacks still lingers and a significant gesture from Pakistan — expediting the trial of the suspects here perhaps — is yet to come. The weight of history means that both sides have a thousand and one reasons to not genuinely seek a full peace with one another. So officials like Prime Minister Singh, so obviously and so genuinely interested in peace with Pakistan, do not come about often. He should follow his instinct. Roll the dice: visit Pakistan. Of such gestures is history sometimes made.