A week, they say, is a long time in politics. By that token, two minutes may not be too short a while for a wink and a handshake when two Prime Ministers ran into each other at a Paris conference devoted to climate change. Particularly so, since everybody was equally keen to see a climate change in relations between India and Pakistan. For some time, there had been too many toxic emissions of the verbal kind befogging the air in relations between the two south Asian neighbours.
According to reports, the meeting between Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi had lasted a mere 120 seconds. The two leaders smiled as they met, shook hands, sat down to exchange a few words—and that was it! A leading Pakistani newspaper described the meeting as “an ice breaker”. Another Pakistani paper quoted Prime Minister Sharif saying that he had had “good talks” with his Indian counterpart. The Indian foreign office spokesperson, however, was a little more cautious in his choice of words. He described the meeting as an “exchange of courtesies”.
If India was treating the meeting with such circumspection, the reason was not difficult to fathom. The official level talks between the two sides had earlier been called off twice at the last moment. First, the Foreign Secretary level talks were cancelled by India after Pakistan insisted on talking to the Hurriyat leaders. And then, last August, the proposed meeting between the two National Security Advisors failed to take off as Islamabad sought to change the agreed agenda of the meeting.
In the first instance, Pakistan High Commissioner's proposed meeting with the Hurriyat leaders became a critical issue. New Delhi had on earlier occasions ignored such meetings. This time, however, it took the position that High Commissioner's talks with the Kashmir separatist leaders could not be treated as a pre-condition for the Foreign Secretaries talks.
Actually, there was little new that the Hurriyat leaders could have told the Pakistan High Commissioner that the latter did not already know. It was mainly about symbolism. In inviting the Hurriyat leaders for talks at its High Commission in New Delhi and subsequently Islamabad on the eve of the official-level meeting, Pakistan was asserting it as a prerogative to make the Kashmir separatist leader appear as if they were players in a process that was meant to be just bilateral. In the bargain, it was treating the Hurriyat leaders as if they were the sole representatives of the Kashmiri people. The fact of the matter was that the Hurriyat commanded little support beyond the Valley, and in the Valley itself their right to represent everybody was hugely contested by other groups and parties. The Hurriyat could not wear the mantle as if it were the sole spokesperson of the Kashmiri people. And so, the Foreign Secretaries proposed meeting foundered on that contentious issue.
Next, it happened again after the two Prime Ministers had met at Ufa in Russia last July. In a fresh attempt to restart the dialogue process, they had agreed to have a meeting of the two National Security Advisors. India would be open to discuss all subjects including Kashmir, provided they reached an agreement on tackling the common menace of terrorism. However, Pakistan Prime Minister came in for a lot of criticism at home for his supposed failure in not prioritizing Kashmir over terrorism. And so, this time again the meeting failed to happen.
Even as it was obvious that nothing of substance could have been discussed by the two Prime Ministers in that brief tête-à-tête in Paris, there was scope for optimism. The little bit of warmth exuded in that short exchange gave one reason to hope that it might finally pave the way for resumption of the official level talks.
Here, one cannot but take note of the fact that a few days prior to the meeting in Paris, Prime Minister Sharif had announced that Pakistan would be prepared to resume talks with India without any preconditions. That had created a slight opening. Moreover, after the Paris attacks it was inevitable that terrorism should top the agenda.
Hopefully, it may now be possible for the two countries to pick up the pieces from where these had been left after Ufa. That would mean prioritizing terrorism without declaring it as a precondition. In any case, dealing with the problem of terrorism would be the right way of confidence building before one got to the other more complex issues, such as Kashmir. Having said so, it may still be too early to celebrate. One has to see if the other critical players in Pakistan, the army and the ISI among them, would let the 120-second Paris meeting kick start a process that had been a non-starter two times over.
(The writer is a Senior Journalist and Columnist. E-mail: email@example.com)
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