The agreement by India and Pakistan to resume structured talks, >seven years after the composite dialogue was stopped following the Mumbai terrorist attacks, marks a dramatic improvement in bilateral relations. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi >met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Paris on the sidelines of the Climate Conference on November 30, both sides have moved fast to tackle the key challenges that are holding back talks. The breakthrough was achieved at the National Security Adviser-level discussions held in Bangkok on December 6. On the face of it, both sides have signalled that they are ready for a give-and-take approach. Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, both in Opposition and so far in government at the Centre, had opposed any resumption of dialogue without “concrete action” by the Sharif administration on the Mumbai attacks of 2008. For the Pakistanis, mention of Kashmir is a key issue. Mr. Sharif came under sharp criticism at home over the Ufa statement of July which had omitted any reference to Jammu and Kashmir. However, in the joint statement issued in Islamabad on Wednesday, Pakistan has given assurances on an “early completion of the Mumbai attacks trial”, and “resolved to cooperate to eliminate” terrorism. India, on the other side, has agreed to include Kashmir on the dialogue agenda.
Despite the agreement to resume talks, guarded optimism must be the dominant mood in New Delhi. It’s the Modi government’s Pakistan moment. Eighteen months after it came to power, a period that saw an increase in border skirmishes and high-decibel rhetoric, the government finally appears to have realised that there is no alternative to bilateral talks in engaging with Islamabad. While the constructive steps the government has taken in the last 10 days, something which it failed to do in the past 18 months, are really commendable, it has to be realistic about the challenges ahead. Mr. Modi is venturing into a path his predecessors had tested and retreated from. The Manmohan Singh government had tried to kick-start stalled discussions through the “resumed dialogue” process, which met with the same fate of the composite dialogue following the killing of Indian soldiers almost three years ago. In the past, every time there was forward momentum in India-Pakistan ties, there were attempts by non-state and extra-state actors on the Pakistan side to derail the process. Though it’s too early to predict the outcome of the comprehensive dialogue, it can be certainly seen that the proposal, which will have all the “pillars” of the India-Pakistan relationship, including economic ties, people-to-people contacts and high-level interaction, is a promising beginning. Both sides have time to build a strong foundation of renewed engagement before Mr. Modi goes to Islamabad next September. The agenda is wider this time. What is needed, and crucial, is the political will to stay the course irrespective of the challenges, and avoiding playing to the gallery. New Delhi particularly has to internalise the logic of growing the constituency for peace within Pakistan, in India’s own national interest, and therefore desist from unnecessary attempts at points-scoring.