This week’s meeting between the >Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries in Delhi served as a reality check on the stalemate in the bilateral dialogue. Meeting on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference, the two officials failed to find common ground to kickstart the >Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process , or even agree on a timetable. Both countries have now officially confirmed that the talks bore no results. In Parliament on Thursday, the government referred to the talks that lasted 90 minutes as a “courtesy call”; and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said “no breakthrough” had emerged from his meeting with S. Jaishankar. The separate statements by the two foreign offices listing, point-wise, the issues discussed were an equal indicator of the discord. India raised its concerns about Pathankot, the 26/11 investigation, and consular access to alleged spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. Pakistan brought up alleged Indian interference in Balochistan and its concerns about investigations in the Samjhauta Express blast. Neither mentioned the other’s concerns, with both statements clearly aimed at their respective domestic audiences rather than a bilateral outreach. Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Chaudhry may have discussed ways to move the dialogue process forward in a productive way. The only way to do this is to schedule structured meetings at the secretary level for the next few months, even as the two National Security Advisers take up issues related to terrorism in the wake of the >Pathankot attack . Pakistan has been particularly reluctant for a full-fledged discussion on terrorism, but given that it hosts the SAARC summit this year, it may be willing to be more flexible in framing the talks agenda.
Despite many setbacks, there have been numerous occasions over the past year to encourage hope that dialogue will acquire some sort of permanence. To begin with, the meeting in Ufa between the >two Prime Ministers that drew up an ambitious road map for talks, the subsequent meeting in Paris, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled Christmas Day visit to Lahore surprised each time and pulled ties out of a deep freeze. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s December visit to Islamabad, when a new Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue between the Foreign Secretaries was announced, as well as the sustained contact between the National Security Advisers, gave an impression of momentum towards a historic summit in November 2016. Mr. Modi is likely to attend the SAARC summit then. Importantly, Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif, who have deliberately kept a direct line of conversation alive all these months, have expressed their vision of bilateral ties with clarity. It is now for the two governments — which in Pakistan’s case also means the military establishment — to work towards realising that vision. In a world where the U.S. and Cuba have restored ties, Russia and China have formed a close partnership, and Iran has emerged from isolation, it is not too much to hope that India and Pakistan can at least discuss key issues.