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Hope & fear: how to read the renewed Modi-Sharif bonhomie

Raza Rumi | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:18 IST

After weeks of sabre-rattling, India and Pakistan have returned to the tradition of cyclical peacemaking. This week, Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi met on the sidelines of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summits in Ufa, Russia, their meeting marking the end of a tense year in bilateral relations.

How did this renewed engagement come about?

In the past one year, India-Pakistan relations have seen many twists and turns, with officials trading accusations, the soldiers exchanging senseless rounds of fire and blaming each other for provocation.

Things changed in June when Modi called to greet Sharif at the start of Ramazan. Three weeks later, the prime ministers met, a joint statement was issued and Modi accepted the invitation to attend the 2016 SAARC Summit in Islamabad.

Does this thaw change the dynamic of the India-Pakistan relationship?

During the ongoing SCO Summit, India and Pakistan will be included as full members of the regional association. This is also the first time that the BRICS group has reached out to regional players such as Pakistan.

Given the shifts in global power distribution, India and Pakistan aim to seek their place in these shifting configurations. In Asia, the growing Sino-Russian ties mark a major turn in power equations.

[twittable]US and China want Islamabad to engage with the Taliban. India's 'isolate-Pakistan' policy is proving unfeasible[/twittable]

Pakistan is an ally of China and Russia is also opening up to it after the end of its cold war alliance with India. Such reshaping of regional dynamics requires a rethink. And it seems to be happening in both Pakistan and India.

Not surprisingly, a Chinese diplomat has meaningfully stated that bilateral relations between India and Pakistan would improve after their inclusion in the SCO.

Is there anything excitingly different about this shift?

The Modi-Sharif parleys have come at a time when Pakistan, in league with the world powers, seems to be brokering a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Several rounds of dialogue have been held so far.

China, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others, are involved in this diplomatic coup. The 'isolate-Pakistan' policy articulated by Indian hawks, is, evidently proving unfeasible.

New Delhi and Islamabad will soon realise, if they haven't already, that violent engagement in Afghanistan through proxies will be counterproductive. A stable Afghanistan works for both; and India's leverage in Pakistan's Western neighbourhood has been rationalised by Ashraf Ghani's realpolitik.

Afghanistan should not turn into a regional flashpoint with dire implications for regional and global security. Let's hope the back channels are already working on that front.

Will the engagement yield any immediate tangible gains on the ground?

The joint statement issued after the PMs meeting is encouraging in many respects. Foremost is the agreement that the border security personnel of the two countries shall interact after their respective DGMOs address issues of firing across the Working Boundary and calm the borders.

Most Track II parleys, including those I have attended in the past few years, have stressed this Confidence Building Measure. Military officials may not alter foreign policies but at least they can prevent senseless firing and loss of precious lives along the tense borders.

Such meetings also open more avenues for military-to-military engagement. And in the case of India and Pakistan, this may not be a bad idea. Yet, it is unclear if this agreement will be fully implemented given that the last meeting of the DGMOs in December 2013 had taken place after a gap of 14 years.

Will the 'core concerns' of the two countries, for long the sticking point in the relations, be addressed?

The great news is that India and Pakistan have agreed to discuss "all outstanding issues". This certainly includes Kashmir and Siachen, among others.

The two sides also condemned terrorism "in all its forms" and Pakistan reiterated its assurance to see through the trial of Pakistanis accused of orchestrating the 2008 assault on Mumbai.

[twittable]Narendra Modi wants to re-engage with Pakistan. Can he convince the Sangh Parivar hardliners to go along?[/twittable]

Furthermore, the agreement to hold a meeting of the National Security Advisers soon is vital as this will allow the two countries to directly share their misgivings with each other.

Pakistan is concerned that India may be fuelling the Baloch insurgency; India continues to complain about the slow pace of the 26/11 trials. In this context, the Indians side's recent pronouncements on "covert operations" as a containment strategy are counter-productive.

Read more: Shoma Chaudhury interviews Shashi Tharoor on Indo-Pak; Majyd Aziz on the impact on business; AS Dulat on Modi-Sharif.

Will the political commitment expressed in Ufa translate into policy shifts?

It's unclear if it would. There are domestic constraints on both sides, and the two PMs have home constituencies to manage.

Sharif has to keep the Army engaged in the process, otherwise his initiatives will flounder. It is likely that he would have taken the commanders into confidence beforehand. The good thing is that the civil-military rifts of 2014 have been repaired to some extent. It also helps that the military is occupied with a major counter-terrorism operation in the northwest and would, thus, avoid tension on the eastern front.

Modi remained silent when his ministers were talking tough in recent months. How will he manage the hardliners in his ideological fold? And how would the Indian policy establishment, time-warped in its view of Pakistan, facilitate Modi's vision for the future?

These questions will cast a shadow on future developments. The SAARC may just be the safest forum for both countries to push for normalisation without ruffling too many domestic feathers.

The composite dialogue as an architecture for bilateral engagement has expired. It needs to be replaced by regional initiatives, national security actors talking to each other and keeping the borders calm.

As for trade talks, they may do better after more confidence is built between the two governments.

The good news is that bilateral talks may actually happen after an avoidable hiatus. The bad news is that we have seen many such moments squandered in the past.

First published: 10 July 2015, 10:13 IST
Raza Rumi @Razarumi

Raza Rumi is a consulting editor with the The Friday Times and a columnist with the Express Tribune. Currently, he is also a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, US.