The oddest thing about Indo-Pak ties right now:Both sides actually seem earnest

It wasn’t that long ago that Pakistan was using a diplomatic weapon against India that probably doesn’t make it into foreign-affairs handbooks: sarcasm. Still, nothing about the India-Pakistan dialogue process, if it can be called that, has managed to surprise most people. Towards the end of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure, efforts to make progress came with a weary sort of expectation that nothing is actually going to go anywhere. No wonder Singh never made it over the border.

Which is why there’s something unusual about the last few weeks. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden visit to Lahore on Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday on December 25 could have been the first sign of this change in atmosphere. But it was still easy to be cynical – Modi hasn’t been called a “brilliant events manager” for nothing.

And when four terrorists allegedly crossed over from Pakistan to attack an air force base in Pakistan, killing seven Indians in the process, it seemed as if things would revert to the usual script. India would summon all of its righteous indignation over yet another cross-border attack, insist Pakistan has to crack down on terror, and call off talks. Islamabad, equally indignant, would fume and insist on India providing “concrete evidence” while also grumbling to the side about Balochistan and so on. And then nothing would happen.

Different tone

Some of those things have happened this time. Terrorists allegedly crossed over from Pakistan soon after Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore, the talks haven’t happened just yet, and Islamabad has asked for “concrete evidence.”

But the tenor has been entirely different. While there was lots of teeth-gnashing on Indian television, the government insisted on sticking to a sober tone. Two years ago, would you really have believed that a Bharatiya Janata Party minister’s response to a question about Pakistan’s approach to terror would have been that there is “no reason to distrust” them?

The BJP’s supporters, used to their party whipping up anti-Pakistan sentiments, were mostly dumbstruck. The Opposition didn’t quite know what to say either. Amazingly talks haven’t been called off yet either.

Something seems to have changed across the border too. Pakistan didn’t respond with shifty-eyed annoyance after being accused of hosting terrorists right after the Pathankot attacks. Instead, its official statement included a commitment to “partner with India” to eradicate the menace of terrorism.

Cynical response

In the time since, with the Modi government keeping the anti-Pakistan sentiment in check, Islamabad seems to have gone about at least paying lip service to the idea of an investigation. Sharif put together a Joint Investigation Team, offices of the Jaish-e-Mohammad were shut, and some of its members were detained. There were even suggestions that Masood Azhar, the head of JeM had been arrested, though these remain unconfirmed.

Again, there is a cynical response to this. Jaish-e-Mohammad s offices should have been shuttered a long time ago, considering Pakistan said it was cracking down on the terror organisation in 2002. And Azhar may have been detained, but so was Jamaat-ud-Dawa head Hafiz Saeed as well as Laskhar-e-Taiba chief Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi before him.

Yet, the speed with which Pakistan has acted is unusual and both parties seem actually willing to try. New Delhi has recognised the need to be cautious, which is why it has insisted on some action on Pathankot before foreign secretary talks that had been decided upon during Modi’s Lahore visit, can go ahead.

Earnest or naive

But even while announcing the postponement of talks, the Indian government’s attitude seemed unusually positive. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup made it clear that he was welcoming the moves by Pakistan, calling the arrests of Jaish-e-Mohammad operatives an “important and positive first step”. He also took pains to insist that talks had been postponed to the “very near future”.

There is danger for both sides in doing this, especially if they can’t trust each other. Islamabad and New Delhi have to follow through on their promises, while also ensuring the hawks on either side don’t get too loud. A small event like the Hindu extremists vandalising the office of Pakistan’s national airline in Delhi can end up having unforeseen repercussions. The earnest tone can end up looking like naivete.

But if both sides are on the same page and, moreover, can see that each needs to assuage their own domestic constituencies at the same time. If they can build a game plan that integrates this into their approach, we might be looking at some actual progress in the neverending project that is India-Pakistan relations.

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