Manmohan Singh-Sharif meeting: A baby step in the right direction (Comment: Special to IANS)

It is heartening to note that at last wisdom prevailed and despite stiff opposition from the hawks in the power corridors of New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to go ahead and meet with Pakistan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This will be their first meeting as heads of government.

The hardliners are justified in their own way because Pakistan has shown no signs of taking any steps so far to ease the tension created by the situation at the Line of Control in Kashmir, there has been no progress on giving the MFN (most favoured nation) status to India and of course the Pakistani have shown no sign on speeding up the trials of the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks or on shutting up Hafiz Saeed.

The anti-talks elements are also right when they claim that India should first determine the relationship between Mr. Sharif and the Pakistani Army because Sharif may not be in a situation to deliver on his promises that involves the army. It is the same army, they contend, which removed Sharif from power during his last term. But they should also factor in the fact that General Kayani, known for his staunch attitudes towards India, will be retiring within months.

And the point is that how can an Indian leader assess the real strength and intent of a Pakistani leader without engaging him in talks. In case of Sharif, there is no doubt that he genuinely wants to improve relations with India, as he did during his last term. But last time the Kargil conflict engulfed his benign leadership and this time he has inherited a lingering legacy of the 26/11 Mumbai attack.

But India has no choice but to talk with Pakistan, because there is no such issue between the two traditional rivals that will just vanish with passage of time. All of them have to be resolved through persistently tough talks. The talks have also become a must because of a new issue on the horizon, once the US forces withdraw from Pakistan next year.

Both sides must sit on the table to convince each other that there is no need to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan and assure each other that they will not use the Afghan soil for terror attacks in each other’s country. It will not be easy but there is no other way because it will not be futile and too costly for either country to open another area of conflict with the solution of the Kashmir problem still years away, if at all.

Several foreign policy experts in Pakistan have also been talking about the futility of continuing the proxy war in Afghanistan after the US departure from there creates a vacuum, saying the consequences of such a war will be devastating for regional peace. Such a conflict, they say, would be debilitating not just for Afghanistan but for Pakistan and India, and it would draw their energies in a negative direction.

India alleges that militant attacks on its diplomatic missions and citizens in Afghanistan are orchestrated by the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI. Islamabad, in turn, blames New Delhi for using its presence in Afghanistan to fund acts of terrorism on Pakistani soil, particularly in the southwestern border province of Balochistan, where Baloch militants are waging a low-level insurgency.

I believe that if both sides try to win each other’s trust in Afghanistan, which is a Herculean task, it will go a long way in resolving some other issues.

Pakistan must also realize that its latest argument that it itself is the biggest victim of terrorism is no excuse for not controlling anti-Indian forces operating from its soil. India, in fact, has never negated the fact that Pakistan is a bigger victim of terror. So the situation should create a common ground for the two neighbours to cooperate in containing terrorism from wherever it originates.

Some longtime observers of India and Pakistan relations, such as Mani Shankar Aiyar, MP, believe there are enough compelling reasons for both Islamabad and Delhi to sit across the table and try to normalize relations in their own interests. Pakistan has already realized, he says, that security arrangements with third countries aimed at India are not protecting Pakistan at all and therefore Pakistan is wanting to have a more independent foreign policy, to be a frontline state in its own interest instead of being a frontline state in someone else’s interest. And India, he says, ought to realize, if it has not already done so, that it can never play the role that it can on the international stage if it has the albatross of hostility with Pakistan around its neck.

However, no one expects that the New York meeting between Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif will bring any surprises, but it will definitely be a baby step in the right direction after the recent change in the government in Islamabad. After all, Sharif, who won the Pakistani election twice by including “improved relations with India” in his election agenda, will be meeting Singh for the first time. So the two leaders, at least, can break the ice and create a rapport by freely speaking with each other in Punjabi.

(Ravi M. Khanna is a former South Asia Bureau Chief of Voice of America who now free lances from New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at ravimohankhanna@gmail.com)

IANS