Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise decision to make a stopover in Lahore has brought drama and anticipation into the affairs of the subcontinent. Prior to that, it had been an up-and-down year, with talks agreed, but failing to materialise; chance encounters here and there and hopes raised and disappointed against a background of constant recrimination and occasional border incidents. It had seemed that nothing but more of the same could be expected ahead. But within the prevailing uncertainties, there had also been some signs of a different, more purposive intention. The talks between the national security advisers, whose suspension had been a big setback, were revived, and in a significant positive indication, the external affairs minister went to Islamabad where she met Pakistan’s senior leaders. It was thereafter agreed that the two foreign secretaries should meet and bilateral dialogue between senior officials be resumed.
Modi’s snap decision took matters to an altogether different level. His predilection for the dramatic has often been seen during his travels abroad, but nothing remotely as spectacular as the Lahore visit. At a stroke, the hesitations and cautious calculations of the experts have been brushed aside and the ground cleared for bolder initiatives. The sheer surprise of it has created momentum and outpaced the critical voices, so that attention is now directed not on the merits of the decision to talk, but on what comes next. Indo-Pak affairs have been energised.
While Modi will rightly be credited with having taken the lead, Nawaz Sharif’s ready response must also be acknowledged. Here, as on occasions in the past, he has been supportive of efforts to improve relations, and with Modi he has not held back in showing friendly intent, beginning with attending the Indian PM’s swearing in. Both leaders have shown boldness in reaching out and as there is a convergence at the top, there could be a real prospect of something being achieved when official discussions commence. The drama of the Lahore event has cleared the way, and now, as dialogue is set to resume, substantive results could be attainable.
When the foreign secretaries meet, they will be faced with a challenging agenda. There have been numerous previous attempts to bridge the gap and these will require reassessment in today’s changed context. The heads will no doubt continue to direct and guide, but the secretaries must delve into the nitty-gritty. There are plenty of conflicting views and strongly held positions to be negotiated and moderated. Some believe that step-by-step progress is the only way, to settle lesser issues before the major ones; others feel the big ones must be settled first after which the others will follow more readily. The major concerns of cross-border terror and the question of Kashmir will need to be addressed, being issues that affect peace and tranquillity. Nor can matters like Siachen and Sir Creek be set aside, amidst several others that have long awaited settlement. There is also a wide range of economic matters where progress has been insufficient owing to disturbed overall relations. People-to-people contact has been restricted and awaits more liberal facilitation.
The back channel on Kashmir is particularly significant for the near-agreement it was able to fashion on this most divisive of issues. With the improved prospects brought about by Modi’s Lahore initiative, it may be possible to pick up the threads and advance towards agreement on several of the issues that have remained unresolved so far. The talks between the foreign secretaries are to be followed by a series of meetings between their counterparts in other ministries. There is thus a real opportunity to make progress, not in bits and pieces, but across the board.
The author is former foreign secretary of India.