Modi-Sharif meet in Kazakhstan: Is this the beginning of a thaw?
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New Delhi: In a move that could indicate a thaw in ties, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday greeted his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at a dinner in honour of visiting heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, two people familiar with the developments said.
This was the first time when the two prime ministers have spoken to each other in person after December 2015 when Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore to attend Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding. Sharif and Modi had also spoken before the former’s open-heart surgery in May 2016.
The two prime ministers are in Astana to attend the SCO Summit where India and Pakistan will be inducted as full members of the bloc.
According to one of the two people mentioned above, Modi enquired about Sharif’s health and that of his family who he had met during his surprise visit to Pakistan.
There has been speculation about a possible meeting between Modi and Sharif in Astana to ease the growing tension between the two neighbours. The two leaders would be in the same room on Friday too as they formally join the six-nation SCO grouping that focuses on security and trade.
But does this brief meeting in Astana constitute a thaw in ties that have been in free fall since the 2 January terrorist attack in Pathankot last year?
Analysts in India do not see the possibility of an immediate return to normalcy in ties or a resumption of peace talks between the two countries given the current state of relations.
Speaking to reporters in New Delhi on Monday, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said India’s Pakistan policy rested on three pillars. First, that India was clear that “it wants to hold dialogue to resolve all disputes”, second that “this dialogue would be bilateral without mediation from any third country, organisation or anyone else”, and third that “terror and talks cannot go together”.
She then indicated that the current atmosphere between the two countries was vastly different from the time she had travelled to Islamabad in December 2015 for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan on the sidelines of which India and Pakistan announced the resumption of dialogue.
“No meeting is scheduled either from their side or from our side,” Swaraj added later.
It was on the sidelines of the 2015 SCO summit at Ufa in Russia that Modi and Sharif had agreed for talks between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of India and Pakistan. That was, however, followed by a terrorist attack on a police station in Punjab’s Gurdaspur area. The NSA talks were called off in August at the last minute over a proposed meeting between Pakistan’s then security advisor Sartaj Aziz and the Kashmiri separatists.
The two prime ministers later met on the margins of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris and this was followed by a secret meeting of the Indian and Pakistani NSAs in Bangkok in December 2015.
Modi and Swaraj visited Pakistan in December 2015 and talks were to resume in January 2016. But this initiative too was followed by the terror attack on the Pathankot air base in Punjab in January 2016. Top officials of the two countries met in the following months but they could not arrest the downward spiral in relations.
India’s surgical strikes at terrorist launch pads in September, in retaliation to the attack on the army base in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri and sharp exchanges between the two sides over human rights issues in Kashmir following the death of Burhan Wani—whom India calls a terrorist and Pakistan “a martyr”—only worsened the atmospherics between the two countries. The Uri terrorist attack was followed by another on an Indian army residential quarters in Nagrota in Punjab in November. The two countries have also been exchanging fire along their borders in violation of a 2003 ceasefire pact that both accuse the other of initiating.