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India-Pakistan Dialogue: Is It Possible?

FILE - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hand with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their meeting in New Delhi, India, May 27, 2014.

Both the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers insisted in their recent U.N. speeches that they want engagement with the other, but the actual possibility of meaningful dialogue between the two countries in the near future appears slim.

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart to his inauguration, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accepted, despite pressure from the country’s security establishment, the two sides seemed to be off to a good start.

That quickly faded once the Indian side canceled foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for August.

Although they cited a meeting between Pakistan’s ambassador and separatist leaders from Indian-administered Kashmir, that might have been just an excuse, according to Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center. He thinks India canceled the meeting because Prime Minister Sharif’s government had taken a beating domestically and Prime Minister Modi did not think he could be a consequential partner at this time.

“India is not in this just to go through the motions. They want specific, meaningful outcomes. They are asking for more than Pakistan is willing to deliver,” said Kugelman.

That meaningful, specific outcome has to do with tackling terrorism. India wants Pakistan to crack down on groups that threaten India, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a group that was involved in 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks on the Indian commercial center, Mumbai, that lasted four days. On top of India’s list of demands for Pakistan is to take legal action against LeT members inside Pakistan.

LeT is widely believed to enjoy support from Pakistan’s strong security establishment. Prime Minister Modi referred to this in his U.N. speech.

“Even today some countries are giving refuge to terrorists on their soil and consider terrorism to be a tool of their policy. And when one hears about good terrorism and bad terrorism, it raises a question mark on our struggle to fight against terrorism,” said Modi.

He also said India is willing to talk to Pakistan on improving relations as long as it is “without the shadow of terrorism.”

However, India’s enhanced focus on terrorism and making it the central theme in any bilateral engagement may be counter-productive, said Lahore-based political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi.

“I think the problem is that India has now reduced the relationship to the single issue of terrorism,” said Rizvi.

Many believe this is the same mistake Pakistan made in the past when it reduced the relationship to the single issue of Kashmir. The relationship never went anywhere. Other rival countries, like India and China, or China and the U.S., have been successful in reducing tensions and increasing cooperation with each other by dealing first with the issues easiest to resolve.

India’s own relationship with China, a country with which it has fought a war, improved tremendously when the two countries separated their border disputes from trade. Now China is one of India’s largest trading partners. India’s former minister of external affairs, Kunwar Natwar Singh, wants Pakistan to take a page from China’s book and keep Kashmir separate from trade talks, but he said the Pakistani establishment is “obsessed” with Kashmir. At the same time, he insists that terrorism cannot be separated from trade or any other talks with Pakistan.

“I think terrorism is a very serious problem. To think that we would push terrorism to the back of the agenda is unlikely,” said Singh.

Still, Modi’s U.N. speech may have opened another tiny window of opportunity. Pakistan's prime minister used harsher language vis-à-vis Kashmir in his U.N. speech than has been used in a few years. Pakistan watchers chalk it up to a combination of domestic pressure from the security establishment and what Sharif might have believed was a lukewarm response to his overtures toward Modi.

“Modi did not respond to Sharif on Kashmir. It opened the possibility for the two to open dialogue again,” according to Suhasini Haider, the strategic and diplomatic affairs editor of The Hindu, a well-respected Indian newspaper.

She interviewed Pakistan’s de-facto foreign minister Sartaj Aziz after Modi’s speech. Aziz welcomed Modi’s call for dialogue and even acknowledged that the meeting between Pakistan’s envoy and Kashmiri separatist leaders from the Hurriat Conference was ill-timed. Her copy called his response a “softening of positions.”