Surprise meet will boost ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif have sprung a pleasant surprise on the world. On Christmas Day, Modi dropped in on Sharif on the occasion of the latter’s birthday at his home in Lahore. According to the official version, Modi called Sharif to wish him and the latter invited him over for tea. Modi accepted the invite and flew to Lahore on his way home from Afghanistan. Critics of the impromptu meeting have dismissed it as a “political stunt.” But they are missing the significance of this meeting. This is the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan in over 11 years. More importantly, the chat over tea injects a new freshness in bilateral relations. Finally, the two countries have leaders who are willing to think out of the box, take bold risks and find new and unconventional ways to engage with each other.

India-Pakistan efforts at dialogue have often got stuck even before they start. This is because the two sides are often unable to agree on dates and venues for the talks as ego problems stand in the way of these simple decisions. There are opponents of the peace process too who meddle with the process. The Modi-Sharif meeting indicates that spontaneity and imagination can overcome these obstacles. Modi’s visit was a diplomatic masterstroke and both leaders can take credit for this. It has stripped India-Pakistan meetings especially those at the highest level of the hype and hysteria generally associated with them and the great expectations that precede these rare meetings. It should be possible for our leaders to meet each other without all the fan-fare and media-hype that precedes bilateral summits. It should be possible for our officials to interact informally outside the constraints of structured dialogue formats. This will go a long way to improve subsequent interaction at the dialogue table.

The two governments must build on the optimism generated by the Modi-Sharif meeting. The Lahore meeting is a mood elevator. It needs to be followed up with substantial and sustained dialogue. Importantly, the two governments need to guard against spoilers. It may be recalled that in 1999 even as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sharif were shaking hands on the Lahore Declaration, Pakistan’s generals were sabotaging the agreements by implementing plans to occupy Indian territory at Kargil. A war followed. Modi and Sharif must ensure that this unpleasant chapter doesn’t repeat itself. They must guard against hawks and warmongers in both countries.

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