India-Pak could break ice at SAARC summit

KATHMANDU: Despite talking tough, both India and Pakistan appear to have left the door ajar for a breath of fresh air to revive their frozen diplomatic links, when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif attend the SAARC summit in Nepal on November 26 and 27. 

Both New Delhi and Islamabad are reported to be emitting the right signals ahead of the SAARC summit, although the Pakistani premier has upped the ante somewhat, perhaps with Kashmir audiences in mind ahead of state elections, declaring that he will start a dialogue with India only after consulting Kashmiri leaders. Mr Sharif went on to ask United States President Barack Obama to raise Kashmir with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visits New Delhi in January.

Reports said that at the recently concluded Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Union home minister Rajnath Singh and national security adviser Ajit Doval spoke candidly about Pakistan. They reiterated that the relevance of Kashmiri separatists and inviting international interest in Kashmir are red flags for India. 

Meanwhile the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin did not rule out the possibility of a meeting between Modi and Sharif as he said that India is for “cooperative and peaceful ties” with Pakistan. The Prime Minister is keen “to have meaningful dialogues with as many south Asian colleagues as possible”, he said. “This would mean taking into account all aspects of relationships.”

Akbaruddin said the schedule of the bilateral meetings is being finalised, “brick by brick” and it is a “work in progress”. “Our intent is to have meaningful dialogues,” he said.

Likewise In Islamabad, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said that “on the sidelines of the event, the Prime Minister (Sharif) will meet other leaders of SAARC countries to discuss issues of bilateral and regional interest.”

This came on a day Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh met her Pakistan counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary at the SAARC Standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries.

While there was no official word on whether Singh and Chaudhary discussed any bilateral agenda on the sidelines, a Nepal government official told The Indian Express that they were focused on the “ambitious SAARC agenda”- on poverty alleviation, eradication of illiteracy and connectivity in terms of rail, road and power grid- during the two-day Standing Committee meeting which concludes on Monday.

In August, Singh had cancelled a meeting with Chaudhary after Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi Abdul Basit met Hurriyat leaders. Relations have been strained over the issue in the past three months.

After the Foreign Secretaries meeting, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz are expected to take part in the Foreign Ministers’ meeting on November 25.

At the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, India’s Home Minister- Rajnath Singh pointed to delays in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks trials and Pakistan offering refuge for criminals like Dawood Ibrahim. He reiterated that India will not put up a white flag and seek a meeting with Pakistani troops while firing continues. Mr Doval offered a striking and perceptive overview of the international environment that India found itself in and regretted that the ISI continued to believe in asymmetrical warfare to “bleed India”.

Crucially for Islamabad, although Mr Singh and Mr Doval’s comments were pointedly sharp, they were not as belligerent as they could have been. Mr Singh, in fact, refused to commit to a ‘hot pursuit’ policy targeting Ibrahim, while the NSA barely dwelt on Pakistan while discussing India’s strategic challenges. Mr Doval’s tour d’horizon- featuring the effects of globalisation on security, the role of international institutions, India’s effort to make the international system work for its interests, should again prompt Pakistan to reflect on its own strategic goals.

Over the last six months of the Modi government, there has hardly been a dull moment on the foreign policy front. Much of the agenda has been marked by change and forward movement, such as in relations with the US, Australia, Nepal and Japan. Pakistan, is one exception to this constructive trend. Cross-border firing and unhelpful rhetoric have vitiated the atmosphere further.

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