To the untrained eye, the meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan last week produced no perceptible movement, with not even an announcement made of a second meeting between the two sides. Nor have the official and background statements made by Islamabad and New Delhi since then been particularly encouraging. But put the same Petri dish under a microscope and the evidence of a small step forward is apparent. Nirupama Rao is likely to travel to Pakistan in March for another meeting with her counterpart, Salman Bashir; on his part, Mr. Bashir, though lamenting the lack of “structure” in the engagement that has begun, is not averse to pushing the process along. But if it is certain that the next step will be taken, where it actually leads will depend on how the two countries play their cards. The time between the February 25 Delhi meeting and the next in Islamabad will allow Pakistan to move further ahead on the trial of the Mumbai terrorist attack conspirators. It will also give the Pakistani side the opportunity to find ways of clamping down on terrorist masterminds like Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, whose daily statements are aimed at provoking a rupture in the fragile dialogue process. The results of the Pakistani action, if any, can be shared with Home Minister P. Chidambaram when he visits Islamabad for the SAARC interior ministers meeting in the next few weeks.
The more substantial the effort Pakistan makes, the easier it will be for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to put up the scaffolding for a meaningful dialogue. But India, too, needs to understand that moving the goal posts is not a helpful strategy. Strictly speaking, the meeting which took place last week should have been held in October, when court proceedings against the LeT operatives in Pakistan got under way. Be that as it may, now that India has decided to press its case across the dialogue table for action on terrorism, it must not allow terrorists to derail this discussion. Not conceding ground on issues where Islamabad wants the dialogue to make a forward movement is a far better strategy than refusing to hold a dialogue or suspending talks in a fit of pique. At no stage should the military establishment in Pakistan be able to point to Indian reluctance to talk as an alibi for not fighting the Afghan Taliban. As the heinous killing of Indians in Kabul last week showed, the Taliban are as opposed to India as the LeT or other terrorist groups. Islamabad may not easily neutralise the likes of Hafiz Saeed; but by resuming talks, India might just have found a zero-cost strategy for calling Pakistan's bluff on the western front.