Looking for a “substantive” outcome from every India-Pakistan meeting has become something of a habit that both sides could well do without. This newspaper has long argued that meetings between the political leaders of the two countries should be held regularly even if nothing comes out of them only for the reason that they convey the leadership’s commitment to peaceful engagement. Over the last nine years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has regrettably kept putting off visiting Pakistan because it could not be crowned with a momentous announcement. Last week’s meeting between him and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should have rightfully taken place in Islamabad. Still, it is no small achievement that the Indian side did not back out of the New York talks given the political pressure to do so, and considering that on earlier occasions, it has crumbled under such pressure. Indeed, relations between the two sides are in such an immature phase that it was just as well that this summit ended with the modest agreement to safeguard the ceasefire through increased field level military contacts. It should now be obvious that normalisation is not going to be achieved over a single summit. Even though both sides have leaders with a grand vision of India-Pakistan relations, neither has the courage or the appetite for a grand bargain. But uninterrupted dialogue at high levels might lead to smaller, incremental steps that in turn could result in improvements on the ground. The new ‘liberalised’ visa regime, though still far from liberal or perfect, is the result of such an incremental process.
Such being the reality, it is entirely commendable that the two sides reiterated their commitment to the ceasefire, as even this was in grave doubt just a month ago. Now close to its 10th anniversary, the Line of Control ceasefire has been the most dramatic achievement of India-Pakistan relations in this century. Aside from unsoldierly incidents on the LoC emanating from the Pakistani side, on India’s other concerns — terrorism directed against it from Pakistan, the snail’s pace in prosecuting those involved in the Mumbai attacks — New Delhi must keep the engagement going to ensure Islamabad delivers on its assurances. With the Taliban on the ascendant in north-west Pakistan, Prime Minister Sharif is yet to find his feet in Islamabad. Eventually, the best hope for better relations between South Asia’s two big countries lies in the strengthening of Pakistan’s democracy. Not much is left of his term, but the Indian Prime Minister should keep his hand of friendship toward the democratically elected government in Islamabad firmly extended.