In his quest for a ‘peaceful neighbourhood’, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif completes his first round of visits to immediate neighbours. Between the invitation from India and its acceptance by the Pakistani side, two potentially disruptive things took place: skepticism by Indian media regarding space available to Sharif to take such a decision vis a vis the army/ISI; and terrorist attack on the Indian consulate in Herat. With regards to the attack, India decided not to follow its traditional mechanical approach of pointing fingers towards Pakistan. Equally mentionable is the opposition leader’s persuasion that Nawaz should attend Narendra Modi’s inauguration. By and large, all political parties of Pakistan have supported Nawaz’s visit. Earlier last year, Nawaz Sharif had probed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s intent to attend his inaugural ceremony, but he declined—presumably due to electoral compulsions.

Better relations with India is one of the key objectives in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Modi’s invitation has altered the rather bleak picture that had been put forward in terms of the future of India-Pakistan relations. The invite, as well as the recent flurry of comments from Modi suggest that he is not averse to a good working relationship with Islamabad. At least he is making visible efforts to shed his anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim image. While Modi’s harsh attacks on Pakistan and on Muslims in India cannot be entirely forgotten; these should not become a show stopper in the way of bettering bilateral relations between the two countries.

The election of a staunch Hindu nationalist to the leadership slot has sent shivers through many amongst India’s 200 million Muslims. His rise has also elicited a mixed response in Pakistan and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 continues to haunt Modi and Muslims across the world. The United States and United Kingdom had placed travel restrictions on Modi in the context of his pathological hatred for the Indian Muslims and his alleged involvement in some of the incidents that resulted in the genocide of Muslims in Gujrat. Modi certainly will have to do a lot to shed these negativities.

The invitation by Modi was a bold and unexpected move. Times of India commented: “By inviting Sharif, Modi has also put the onus on the Pakistani PM to kick off the stalled dialogue process. This is especially true in the light of assertions by Pakistani authorities that Islamabad was willing to have a meaningful, result-oriented dialogue with India under Modi but that the initiative to break the log jam had to come from Modi himself.” Nawaz’s decision to go to India has certainly called Modi’s bluff and has denied him the sole proprietorship of India-Pakistan peace. Nawaz does not share the anxiety that is felt by some quarters here in Pakistan because he has some very fond memories of previous BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, coming to Lahore and he hopes that the current anxiety about Modi and his past will fade away. Modi and Nawaz will have their first bilateral meeting tomorrow; hopefully it will go beyond the parameters of a courtesy call.

Pakistan has expectations that India will come forward for the resumption of meaningful and constructive composite dialogue process, so that both the countries can focus on sustainable peace and development of the region. Pakistan wants uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogues with India to peacefully resolve all bilateral disputes. Time and again, Pakistan has stressed that the two countries had no option but to talk to each other and normalize relations for their mutual benefit. Last week, a renewed effort to pick up the dialogue process was made by Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, while hosting a delegation of the Press Club of India at the High Commission. He said it would be essential to build on past work and take irreversible steps forward. Referring to the Pakistani Prime Minister’s phonecall to felicitate Modi, Mr. Basit said Islamabad was committed to a result-oriented dialogue process.

Pakistan has already begun back-channel diplomacy with the BJP. For quite some time now, Pakistan’s High Commissioner has quietly been in contact with the BJP to convey Islamabad’s willingness for ‘meaningful engagement’ with the new government. Basit delivered a message on behalf of Nawaz Sharif’s government that it was ready for a ‘new beginning’ with the BJP administration. The BJP leadership was informed that the government in Pakistan was following a policy of ‘economic development and peaceful neighbourhood.’ Pakistan is optimistic about the relationship with India as the BJP’s manifesto was also economy driven and sought good ties with neighbours. BJP has also responded to Pakistan’s overtures positively by conveying assurances through its emissaries.

Unfortunately, the Pakistan-India relationship remains perpetually on tenterhooks, ready to ignite on the mildest pretext. At the outbreak of any crisis, the first thing that happens is the breakdown of communications, followed by a rapid climb on the escalatory ladder by India, to a level just a rung or two below actual shooting level, from where neither further climb is tenable nor a graceful descent remains a viable option, ending up in prolonged stalemates in the form of protracted non-employable military deployments. On such occasions, friendly countries take it upon themselves to diffuse tension between the two countries.

It is an interesting paradox that there are no problems between the two countries that cannot be solved through dialogue; yet, both have a poor track record of resolving any major issue bilaterally. While there have been numerous meaningful initiatives for improving relations, these have been generally short lived. Though a number of treaties and Confidence Building Measures (CBM) have endured pressures, over all, the relationship has been a brittle one.

The basic discourse which pervades Indo-Pak relations is whether specific disputes must first be solved before true normalization can be achieved or whether individual disputes are more easily resolved in an overall atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation.

This relationship is rather complex, and while suggesting a way forward there is always the risk of either over-simplification or overstatement. All the major political parties in Pakistan and India are in favour of improving relations between the two countries. The key question is, how can dialogue be made the sole and continuous method and how can its derailment by single, unexpected events, be avoided. Strained relations between the two are a serious impediment in the way of achieving respective national as well as regional aspirations. There is a need that both sides should strive to create a lasting environment of mutual trust and freedom from fear.

Despite setbacks, saner elements in both countries continue to work for the normalization of relations. As of now, the Pakistan-India relationship is erratic; it needs urgent and bold course relations. It needs to be managed in a professional way, circumventing the emotive pitfalls. It would be naïve to expect a quick fix throwing up a durable and robust relationship. In the short term, relations between India and Pakistan are likely to maintain a bumpy trajectory. If persistent and consistent efforts are made by the leadership of both sides to resolve flashpoint disputes and strengthen bilateral crisis management mechanisms, then one can hope for the evolution of a sustainably stable relationship in the medium to long term.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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