New Delhi: After 18 months in office which saw a deep freeze in ties, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has now made its boldest move yet with Pakistan, resuming structured talks in a new avatar – comprehensive bilateral dialogue.
“The two nations have decided to resume talks… It will be a new comprehensive bilateral dialogue,” announced Swaraj, with Adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Sartaj Aziz standing next to her, in a crowded room of journalists in Islamabad on Wednesday night.
Swaraj, who was in Islamabad on invitation to attend the Heart of Asia regional conference in Afghanistan, also met with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. She left Islamabad on Wednesday night, immediately after her talks with Aziz. “India and Pakistan are ready for talks. How this dialogue can be taken forward — the schedule and modalities will be decided in due course,” she said, adding that the foreign secretaries have been tasked to flesh out details.
She added that the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” (CBD) was a slightly expanded version of the earlier Composite Dialogue process, which had sputtered and restarted over the years. The joint statement issued after Swaraj-Aziz talks showed that the eight tracks in Composite Dialogue have expanded to twelve. But, in real terms, there were only two new areas — religious tourism and humanitarian issues, with others being off-shoots of previous ‘pillars’. Incidentally, religious tourism is a favourite subject of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had also proposed the subject for discussion in his meeting with Modi in Ufa, Russia in July.
Pakistani leadership also apparently gave a concrete assurance on dealing with terror, along with 26/11 trial. “The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial,” said the joint statement.
One paragraph of the short single-page joint statement was on terrorism – which is India’s core concern.
Swaraj and Aziz “condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate it”, said the bilateral document, adding “They noted the successful talks on terrorism and security related issues in Bangkok and decided that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism.” Significantly, Swaraj said that “India is prepared to move our cooperation at a pace which Pakistan is comfortable with”.
Earlier in the day, Swaraj had said in her speech at the Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process that India and Pakistan had to “do business with each other”. “Let me take this opportunity to extend our hand to Pakistan as well. It is time that we display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation,” she said.
Swaraj noted that the “entire world is waiting and rooting for a change”. “Let us not disappoint them,” she added. The restarted dialogue will be yet another milestone in the ups-and-down of India-Pakistan relations.
This has been a dramatic turnaround for the Modi government, with its muscular foreign policy vis-a-vis Pakistan, especially as India is set to resume dialogue after more than two years. In January 2015, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had stopped the talks after beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control, stating that it can’t be business as usual.
Swaraj noted that since Parliament was in session, she could not talk any further, but will make a statement there in Delhi on Thursday.
In August, Swaraj had termed Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the initiator of the composite dialogue with its eight subjects, in 1998.
However, the Composite Dialogue was a still-birth at that stage, with Kargil war and President Pervez Musharraf’s conditions stopping talks. The dialogue finally started in 2004, with two rounds in 2004 and 2005.
But, it again sputtered to a stop after the 2006 Mumbai blasts. In between, the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks made any immediate resumption in dialogue a moot point.
After the meeting of Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani in Thimpu on sidelines of 2010 SAARC summit, the composite dialogue began again as the “resumed dialogue” — but it went on only for less than three years before intense cross-border firing brought it to an end in 2013.
Sharif’s presence at the swearing-in ceremony for Modi have been the main high point of relations, which had gone steadily south after that with intensified cross-border firing and crossed wires about contacts with Hurriyat hardliners.
The handshake at the Kathmandu SAARC summit in 2014 did lead to Modi announcing his visit for the next regional conference in Pakistan — but it still could not restart the engine of the dialogue, till now.
The Indian position, so far, had been that talks will only resume in an atmosphere free from terror.
With terror incidents in Gurdaspur and Udhampur still fresh in mind, it remains to be seen how immune the new “comprehensive dialogue process” will be from new cross-border terror attacks.
Sushma meets sharif’s Heir
In her busy schedule, External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj found time to meet with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, who is increasingly seen to be the successor to his political legacy.
Can’t function If Arteries clogged
At the summit, Swaraj said, “The ‘Heart’ of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged.” “Let us at least resolve to help Afghanistan through more effective transit arrangements,” she added. Pakistan has, so far, refused to allow Afghan trucks to transport Indian goods from Wagah border point. The next Heart of Asia regional conference will be held in Delhi in 2016.
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