Originally Published 2014-05-30 06:30:02 Published on May 30, 2014
Narendra Modi is a post-Partition Prime Minister who has no family history linking him directly to the event. This could work to his advantage if he chooses to take a less emotional and more logical approach to the Indo-Pak relationship.
A glimmer of hope in Indo-Pak relations
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his term impressively by meeting with the leaders of the neighbouring countries which make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, the meeting that garnered the most attention was with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This meeting on the first day of the Indian Prime Minister's tenure has created hope for better relations between the antagonistic neighbours.

Modi's invitation to the leaders of all the SAARC countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, came as a surprise and elicited both support and opposition. By holding his ground against the opposition, the Prime Minister made it clear that he will be in charge of the new government's foreign policy decisions. The focus on SAARC leaders also underlined the regional emphasis in the NDA government's foreign policy.

The Modi government, with the invitation to Nawaz Sharif, sent out a message that it is keen to work hard to change the India-Pakistan dynamic. The invitation also put the ball firmly in Pakistan's court. To not accept the invitation would have made Pakistan seem unwilling to pursue better relations while accepting the invitation created unease in the Pakistan army and ISI. The attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan's Herat province a mere four days before the swearing-in ceremony further complicated the issue. India hinted at Pakistani involvement when it condemned the incident and indeed, the timing of the attack can be seen as significant. But, despite the military establishment's apprehensions, Nawaz Sharif accepted the invitation, albeit after three days of consideration.

The meeting was attended by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Nripendra Mishra, High Commissioner to Islamabad TCA Raghavan, Pakistan Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Choudhary as well as other senior officials from both countries. The 26/11 attack trial and the issues of terror and trade were the three major topics of discussion.

Trade between India and Pakistan makes up a mere 0.34 percent of India's total trade. The total trade stands at $2.5 billion of which $1.75 billion are Indian exports. Pakistan has not yet granted the Most Favoured Nation status to India despite several rounds of talks on the matter. During the meeting, both Prime Ministers said that the countries are ready to expand the trade relationship. But Modi emphasised that the relationship between the two could only move in a positive direction once Pakistan made an effort to expedite the 26/11 trial. He also asked his counterpart to crack down on militant groups and cross-border terrorism.

There have been indications that the foreign secretaries of the two neighbours might meet to further discuss possible avenues of positive engagement. The last foreign secretary level talks on bilateral issues took place in September 2012 in Islamabad. Prime Minister Sharif also extended an invitation to Prime Minister Modi to visit Pakistan which the latter accepted though no dates have been set.

The meeting between the two heads of state has been effective in creating goodwill and an atmosphere of anticipation. While no concrete solutions were expected from this meeting, the purpose was to strike a rapport and lay the groundwork for a positive dialogue process which seems to have been achieved. This goodwill needs to be sustained and a regression to hostility must be avoided.

Positive engagement aimed at real gains will require that both Prime Ministers overcome their domestic constraints. Both leaders need to move beyond issues that cater only to their domestic audiences but do not mark significant progress in the bilateral relationship. The Modi government's hardline statements concerning retaliation in the event of a crisis need to be moderated. The two governments also need to establish a mechanism to manage the relationship in such a situation.

Narendra Modi is a post-Partition Prime Minister who has no family history linking him directly to the event. This could work to his advantage if he chooses to take a less emotional and more logical approach to the Indo-Pak relationship. The Pakistani Prime Minister conveyed a positive message by avoiding meeting Hurriyat leaders and not bringing up the issue of Kashmir during his visit. The meeting has raised expectations but the peace effort must be sustained to make this visit by the Pakistani Prime Minister anything more than Prime Minister Modi's diplomatic rhetoric.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.