Is Dialogue Possible?

IS it possible that the appointment of a new prime minister in Pakistan will pave the way for engagement with India and on what terms? So far the initial exchanges between the two prime ministers have been limited to pleasantries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his greeting to Pakistani counterpart Shahbaz Sharif called for “constructive engagement” with Pakistan. In his response, just-appointed Sharif sought “peaceful and cooperative ties” with India through “meaningful dialogue” between the two countries. This provides an opening to expand cooperation. Pakistan army, according to some reports,  is also keen to improve ties. This points towards a possibility for restoration of some engagement. But as is the case with India-Pakistan ties, nothing can be said with certainty until they actually take place. This is because the conditions for engagement between the neighbours remain irreconcilable. Pakistan wants to place Kashmir at the front and centre of its dialogue with New Delhi which is unacceptable to the PM Modi-led government. Pakistan also wants India to restore Article 370 that granted J&K its semi-autonomous status within India which again India sees as irreversible.  The unmistakable signal to Pakistan is to temper its expectation about the extent to which India can accommodate it on Kashmir.

As always, India wants terrorism to be the central issue and wants Pakistan to stop supporting militancy in Kashmir. Pakistan doesn’t accept it backs terrorism. Sharif in his response to PM Modi’s message said that Pakistan’s sacrifices while combating terrorism were well-known.

But it was with these irreconcilable positions intact that the countries in February 2021 agreed to re-instate their 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control and made positive noises signaling a return to dialogue. But they failed to build on the goodwill as any such effort was undone by New Delhi’s refusal to concede on Kashmir.  There have been no further measures, nor does it look likely there will be in the near future. New Delhi seems in no hurry to do this. If anything, this only goes on to show that India feels little need to relent and wants Pakistan to reconcile with the new status quo. But Pakistan seems unlikely to do so. More so, under a government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of its people as the ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s mammoth rallies would have one believe. Also, the new Pakistan government has less than one and a half years to go before fresh polls are held. So any engagement with it is unlikely to sustain.

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