Still tentative

Unpredictability has become a defining feature of Indo-Pak diplomacy. Just a fortnight ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani had crossed each other’s path in Washington, they had given the impression that the time was not ripe yet for substantive bilateral engagement. There was just the customary handshake and nothing more. Prior to that, a meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries in Delhi too had ended without any indication of their readiness to return to the dialogue table. Ever since, each side has continued to harp on issues that do not help create a sober atmosphere needed for purposeful diplomatic engagement.

However, on Thursday, Singh and Gilani threw up some surprises when they met in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. Until early this week, Delhi and Islamabad were not even sure if the two prime ministers would meet on the sidelines of the Thimphu SAARC summit. The two leaders ended up with a meeting that lasted for almost 90 minutes — a proper ‘bilateral’ meeting, according to officials from the two sides. The element of surprise was not just confined to the meeting, but what transpired during the talks was equally unexpected. It was as if the two leaders were not familiar with the reasons that have impeded ‘normal’ bilateral relations between the two countries. So, in the words of the Indian foreign secretary, the meeting was an exercise in understanding why there exists a lack of mutual trust. It was also meant to assess the reasons underlying the current state of relations. These, they believe, would help them think afresh and show the way forward.

What it all means for the relationship in the coming days are far from clear. But what is unambiguously clear is that both Delhi and Islamabad have their respective long lists of issues of ‘concern’ with each other — issues such as terrorism, Kashmir, water-sharing, etc. The gap that separates them remains as wide as they have always been in the past. An elaborate Composite Dialogue (CD) process was launched a few years ago to address and resolve some of the specific problem areas in the relationship. But that process was suspended in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Its fate remains uncertain. Though the two prime ministers mandated their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to meet in the near future, the agenda for such meetings was hardly clear in Thimphu.

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