When India and Pakistan shake hands

June 16, 2009

As encounters go between the leaders of India and Pakistan, the meeting in Russia between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari — their first since last November’s Mumbai attacks — was a somewhat stolid affair.

It had none of the unscripted drama of the handshake famously offered by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when they met at a South Asian summit in Kathmandu in January 2002, while the two countries mobilised for war following an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Musharraf’s gesture made little difference in a military stand-off which continued for another six months.

Nor did it carry the warmth of a summit meeting between Vajpayee and then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in 1999, which raised high hopes of a breakthrough peace deal between India and Pakistan. Those hopes were dashed months later when the two countries fought a bitter conflict in the mountains above Kargil, on the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir.

But for all its absence of drama, or more precisely because of this, did the meeting between Singh and Zardari lay a more solid foundation for what is likely to be a long and difficult process of repairing relations

The two leaders stopped well short of resuming a formal peace process broken off by India following the Mumbai attacks, and Singh delivered a stern warning to Zardari that Pakistan must not allow militants to operate from its territory. “I am happy to meet you, but my mandate is to tell you that the territory of Pakistan must not be used for terrorism,” he told Zardari at a meeting on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Yekaterinburg, in Russia.

But officials nonetheless held out the prospect of another meeting between Zardari and Singh at a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Egypt in July and said that senior officials would hold further talks to exchange information on terrorism. Semantics aside, that means the two countries are talking again after a deep crisis in relations following the Mumbai attacks, although India has insisted it will not reopen the so-called composite dialogue peace process until Pakistan takes action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group it blames for the assault.

So where do they go from here?  Analysts see little hope for now of the two countries being able to pick up where they left off in a peace process which some say had nearly led to a breakthrough on Kashmir. 

But there is increasing debate about how the two countries might improve the way they engage with each other to get out of the on-again, off-again turbulent peace process which has failed to deliver a settlement in more than 60 years

And that is where the Yekaterinburg meeting — stolid, cautious and lacking in drama — might prove to be a turning point.

“Mr. Singh is trying to set out a coherent Pakistan policy,” former Indian ambassador G. Parthasarathy wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “To resume the formal dialogue process, careful preparatory work behind the scenes would be necessary.”

“As we learn from the recent past and look ahead, India must reconsider three core assumptions about the peace process. The first is the belief that we are negotiating with a coherent entity that is capable of making rational choices. Whether we should engage Pakistan or not is a question that makes sense only if treat our western neighbour as a black box,” wrote Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan in the Indian Express.

“New Delhi must instead recognise the enormous internal divergence in Pakistan towards India and develop an approach that helps reasonable voices across the border prevail over the incurably hostile ones,” he wrote. ”In short, the very purpose of our engagement must be to produce a systemic change in Pakistan. It stands to reason then that we must not suspend the engagement every time India’s adversaries put up an obstacle.”

 Signs of a new and more methodical approach that might yield results for people in both countries seeking peace?  Or too slow and too cautious for Pakistan’s civilian government, which would like to see an early breakthrough to ease tensions on its eastern border as it tries to beat back Taliban militants on its western border with Afghanistan?

(Photos: President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajapayee shake hands in Kathmandu, January 2002; Vajpayee meets Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Lahore summit in 1999; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari in Yekaterinburg, 2009)

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