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By Imtiaz Gul

 Friday Times, September 14, 2012


Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar seemed to exude the confidence that is required for a constructive engagement.

"We will move forward," they said in a statement. "We will not be held hostage to history." Ms Khar was more forthcoming when she said Islamabad and New Delhi should learn from the past and work together to create new opportunities for peace. Krishna was more cautious in his expression. He too pledged his country would take positive measures for peace, which according to him was essential for the prosperity of the people of the two countries and the rest of the region.

The visa liberalization agreement between the two countries, and the decision to start a Mumbai-Karachi ferry service and increase flights was seen as a step forward.

These agreements, and the pleasantries exchanged between the visiting dignitary and the Pakistani leaders, illustrated the extremely improved optics in the bilateral relations. But they hardly denoted any change in semantics. Not even on Sir Creek, although Indian premier Dr Manmohan Singh had indicated that after his meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the NAM summit late last month in Tehran.

"I also said (in the Tehran meeting, that) Sir Creek, which we had talked about during his (Zardari's) visit to Ajmer, was doable," Singh told reporters in New Delhi on September 1.

Similarly, when Krishna spoke of the need for effective counter-terror measures, he was basically reiterating what his prime minister had said to reporters in New Delhi.

"It might be true that Pakistan is doing all that it could to deal with terrorism directed against India from Pakistani soil. The court trial of the Mumbai massacre is a vital test of Pakistan's honesty to bring the perpetrators to justice."

What does the foreign ministers' meeting then mean in substance? Not much as far as the long-standing issues such as Kashmir, Siachen, terrorism and Sir Creek are concerned. India continued to insist Pakistan should bring the Mumbai culprits to task and bring down the India-centric jihadist infrastructure. There is obviously no way around that for Pakistan.

As a whole, though, new realizations accompanied by caution in both New Delhi and Islamabad/Rawalpindi are contributing to the improved ambience.

Firstly, one can easily discern the renewed optimism and interest in continuing dialogue, ie the acknowledgement (in New Delhi) of the inevitability of engagement.

Secondly, there is possible delinking of dialogue from the progress in the trial of the Mumbai suspects.

Thirdly, India is still given to a step-by-step approach, which will likely be very slow, because of the looming elections in India and Pakistan - more so in India where the Congress-led government can ill-afford to be seen as having conceded ground or having given concessions to Pakistan.

"Two years ago, Pakistan rejected the step-by-step approach when we suggested it. Now, it is being adopted by both countries," said SM Krishna, in a separate briefing for the 60-member Indian media contingent travelling with him. The Indian leadership can now legitimately sell this as the success of its diplomacy.

Fourthly, Pakistan also appears to have reconciled with the inescapable reality that the road to internal peace, economic revival and regional trade leads through India. Kashmir, in all probability, has become secondary, and Pakistan appears to be reconciled with the idea of just talking about the issue, without pushing for a resolution. It is likely to remain part of the agenda, but will not hold the dialogue hostage.

The military establishment, considered the major stumbling block, hopes improved relations with India will provide Pakistan with the much-needed economic relief, and help deescalate tensions with Kabul and Washington. It also seems to have finally realized that the key to relations with the US and Kabul lies with India, which meanwhile wields great influence in shaping Washington's policies on Pakistan. And that is why the General Headquarters (GHQ) is probably facilitating dialogue with India more than ever before.

Fifth, a new bilateral thrust on trade liberalization and creation of commercial linkages, particularly in the energy sector (electricity and gas), is also clearly visible.

The promise made by SM Krishna - "I will give a positive assessment to my prime minister" - reflects the unraveling of a new phase of pragmatic engagement, guided not only by commercial interests but also by geo-political considerations of an expanding India. Besides an ever-increasing emphasis on trade expansion, India would like to repair relations with Pakistan as part of its drive to become part of the UN Security Council.

Should one hope that the ties between India and Pakistan - so far marked by acrimony, mistrust and antagonism - are going to improve?

Probably yes, because there is no option other than continuous engagement. What we are seeing is that Pakistan has come around to India's longstanding demand of according priority to trade and people-to-people contacts. Even the commencement of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in April 2005 was driven by this Indian desire.

The two countries now appear to be guided more by realism than the narrow emotional outlook that had so far dogged progress on multiple fronts. One would hope, and it is not impossible, that a pragmatic India-Pakistan engagement develops into a game-changer, for the two countries and for the entire region.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Osama: Pakistan Before and After, Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk