NEW YORK - The Pakistani and Indian Prime Ministers met in an environment of expectations lowered to the point of being nonexistent. The very fact that the meeting took place was to be the success of the event, not any resulting development. And so it was. Pakistani hawks have argued that this is not the best time for talks; we are decidedly not at an advantage, terrorism has become our calling card, and we have been crying wolf over foreign involvement for so long that even legitimate concerns about Indian interference find no takers. This may well be true, but as far as Pakistan and India are concerned, there is never an ideal time for talks. Something is always going wrong – and if it isn’t, as soon as a dialogue is announced, something just ‘happens’ to go wrong, right on schedule.
This time it was the LoC tension, the dubious credit for which goes to both sides of the border. With Manmohan Singh facing taunts of “timidity” in an election year, and newly-elected Nawaz Sharif heckled for being “soft” on India, neither walked into the meeting room backed by a swell of political support on the issue. With Hafiz Saeed’s incendiary rhetoric, and accusations of export of terror on the menu, Pakistan may have had a rougher time behind closed doors than India. The Indian PM’s diversion of focus to Pakistan during his meeting with President Obama and the continuation of the same “epicentre of terrorism” theme during his speech to UNGA, made it quite clear that India would continue to aim barbs at Pakistan, even if the dialogue process progressed.
Nawaz Sharif has kept his cool, and not given in to provocation or the temptation to pander to the crowd. But at one point it seemed his patience had run out, when an anchorperson reported him to have said, PM Singh acted like a “village woman”, going to Washington to “complain” to President Obama. The reported remarks were later retracted by the same television person, but the damage was done. While BJP candidate Narender Modi whipped up a thousands-strong crowd in Delhi, Mr Singh and Mr Sharif took their seats in a room at the New York Palace hotel. The “necessary” and “useful” talks, as described by a sombre-looking Mr Shivshankar Menon, Indian National Security Advisor, were more positively referenced by the Pakistani Foreign Secretary, a confident and smiling Mr Jalil Abbas Jillani.
For now, a few modest ‘achievements’ have resulted from the meet. The DGMOs will work to restore the LoC ceasefire, polite and mutual invitations have been extended by both PMs for a state visit, and India has committed to “hard work” on the relationship in the “next few months”. While Sir Creek, Siachen and most important of all, Kashmir, will have to wait to be addressed; it seems the sum of the meeting is that both nuclear-armed states agree that the starting point is to deal with issues they face today. For a beginning, any place will do; but we have a long history of ‘beginnings’ that go nowhere. Whether we get any further from the starting point this time seems unlikely. But both Mr Sharif and Mr Singh know that there is no other option but to try and break the inertia that keeps the two neighbours mired in constant and dangerous hostility.