The cabinet’s U-turn on allowing imports of sugar and cotton yarn from India has dismayed businesses and peaceniks alike. But the original decision to allow those imports, and the abrupt reversal, confirmed that something is indeed afoot when it comes to normalization of frozen Indo-Pak bilateral relations. There is no smoke without fire, they say. Can the stakeholders expect that the fire in question will end up melting some ice this time, instead of burning yet more bridges?
Background parleys are best kept secret, for there is evidence of past dialogues and understandings suddenly derailed by hawkish elements on one side or the other. Now there are news reports suggesting contacts at the highest level between the two countries. After the border ceasefire in February and the public exchange of goodwill between the country’s premiers in March, more confidence-building measures (CBMs) are reportedly in the works.
Earlier this week, a report in the Financial Times created quite some stir about the nascent process. “The next steps include reopening border trade, pandemic response co-operation and India’s participation in an anti-terror drill to be held in Pakistan. If successful, a meeting between the prime ministers could happen in the next 12 months,” the Financial Times reported on April 6.
After waiting for a breakthrough for many years, there are suddenly high hopes for a revival in ties. Folks are becoming nostalgic about the Musharraf-Manmohan framework for peaceful co-existence. However, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that lasting peace will not come overnight. In that regard, India’s veteran diplomat, Satinder Lambah, who ran back-channel dialogue with Pakistan between 2005 and 2014, had some words of advice for the two sides earlier this week:
“I think we must take the dialogue process slowly, begin with some people-to-people initiatives and emphasis on economic relations. We need to have at least a limited beginning in encouraging travel, allowing people to meet each other. India’s biggest friends and ambassadors are Pakistanis who visit India and then return to tell others about all that we have achieved. At a suitable occasion, respective High Commissioners should be reinstated. Track – II dialogues should be held,” Mr. Lambah told The Hindu.
The window of opportunity will not last long, however. While PM Modi doesn’t have a re-election to fight until 2024, come next year Imran Khan government may feel jittery about any bold moves on the Indo-Pak front if the economy continued to sputter and threatened his re-election. The onus is on India to give Pakistan an olive branch for the latter to do some face-saving over Kashmir. Pakistan, after all, has to have something to show for changing its course and singing the tune of peace.
Seasoned Indian observers are suggesting that PM Modi is open to “statehood” for Kashmir, marking a return to pre-August-2019 status quo in the disputed valley. However, this concession may mark culmination of peace process; it likely won’t be the CBM to get high-level talks started. Both sides have political compulsions. And yet, they need to find a way to keep moving forward. Tread softly!