Both India and Pakistan excel at the art of pandering to domestic politics and the textbook nationalisms that they have to nurture. This year, the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers did not meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. After the initial expression of bonhomie at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, where Nawaz Sharif was a guest, bilateral relations have gone downhill. The usual skirmishes and senseless firing on the Line of Control continues, and secretary-level talks scheduled in August were cancelled.

In the last six weeks, Pakistan has been in turmoil. Opposition groups led by Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul Qadri have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sharif. Some say the protests are backed by elements within the military that would like Sharif to step down. There is an unbridgeable cleavage here: Sharif has been trying to assume control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policies and has dared to put a former Army Chief on trial. This has further complicated matters for the prime minister. He survives, but only with the military’s sanction. His dream of a grand rapprochement with India, or even simply greater trade linkages, seems highly unlikely in the near future.

The plebiscite

This is why Sharif had to remind the UN General Assembly that the core issue between the two countries is that of Jammu and Kashmir, and that there must be a plebiscite in Kashmir, enabling the Valley to exercise its right to self-determination. It is a separate matter that many Kashmiris may be averse to both India and Pakistan. The voice and will of Kashmiris does not matter in the jingoistic visions of the Indian and Pakistani nation-state.

Sharif’s position at home was seriously undermined when secretary-level talks were cancelled. Security hawks, found aplenty in the Pakistani media, found another stick to beat him with. By demanding the plebiscite in Kashmir, Sharif was attempting to regain lost ground, and perhaps find a way of accommodating the strategic culture of the Pakistan Army. Unless Indian policymakers exercise more creativity in the bilateral equation, civilians on both sides are likely to be insecure.

Modi’s response

To his credit, Modi did not get into a shouting match. He emphasised the need for talks and pointedly alluded to terrorism, saying that talks could only work in an “atmosphere free of violence”. Sharif’s adviser on national security, Sartaj Aziz, unexpectedly publicly stated that the timing of Pakistani High Commissioner’s meeting with the Kashmir separatists in New Delhi was “perhaps not right”. This rare admission opens a window. The hawks surrounding Modi should take note, instead of dismissing it as just another statement from a civilian government that does not exercise full political authority.

Beyond the headlines and tit-for-tat mediatised policy engagement, the real risk is that India and Pakistan appear to be on the verge of losing all the progress of recent years. Despite the Indian public’s misgivings about the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the two sides have moved on. Trade figures have risen since the partial concessions, and businessmen are once again travelling between the two nations. Sharif has not been able to accord Non-Discriminatory Market Access status to India yet, but if he manages to consolidate power he will be able to do that.

Waiting to implode

It is somewhat strange that India has aspirations to emerge as a global power and a regional leader, but its policy community shirks this responsibility when it comes to Pakistan. The noises coming from Delhi’s intelligentsia suggest that Pakistan’s democratic development is not India’s headache, or why India should let Pakistan "implode". Such arguments are self-defeating. As the larger power, India has to respond to the reality that Pakistan’s political parties, regardless of their ideological hue or composition, are committed to normalidation with the ‘arch-enemy’. India can’t do much to change the civil-military dynamic within Pakistan but it can avoid providing fodder to the jihadist fringe.

Not that Nawaz Sharif has done wonders when it comes to foreign policy. His failure to appoint a full-time Foreign Minister will haunt him. Yet, last December, Sharif held a meeting for the Director Generals of Military Operations that resulted in a period of cooling off. Yet in recent months the incidents of firing have increased, and only a few days ago Pakistan’s Army Chief released a strong statement on retaliating to ‘provocation’ from the Indian side of the border.

What this situation requires is the continuation of dialogue. The Indian policy of calling off talks is hardly productive. Other than providing an ego-kick and satisfying the media frenzy, it achieves nothing. It actually denotes diplomatic weakness, and the absence of a Pakistan policy. If Modi, as goes the hype, is truly committed to looking forward, a coherent Pakistan policy must be formulated.

The K-Word

Denial is also evident when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi is allergic to “the K-word” at multilateral forums. The atoot ang or “integral part” credo emerges. Yet these old scripts have to be discarded. Yes, the Shimla agreement of 1972 is the appropriate framework within which talks can be advanced, but the two sides must continue to talk. Kashmir is regularly discussed in Track-II and Track-III parleys, but nothing much comes of it. A plethora of resolutions passed by civil society voices have hit official walls on both sides.

Pakistan’s former President General Musharraf took the bold step of altering Pakistan’s “principled stance” on the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir. The subsequent “4-point formula” – of open borders and joint governance of the Kashmir Valley, among others – was for some time considered a workable option. Today that formula is relevant only if there is more trust between the two countries, and Pakistan’s security establishment backs the civilian leadership to move forward.

Modi, riding on a huge popularity wave and leading the resurgence of a peculiar Hindu identity of India, may want to wait to focus on bilateral relations. But this would be unwise.

For India’s second economic upsurge, after the liberalisation moment of the 1990s, to take place, peace with its neighbours is essential. For many observers, avoiding a proxy war in Afghanistan is the foremost imperative, an issue that is more than likely to crop up during Modi’s talks with the US administration.

Granted that the Pakistan Army, which has serious apprehensions regarding India’s role in the 1971 war and the separation of what-was-then East Pakistan, and India’s quest for a strategic role in Afghanistan, will not relent easily. It is also true that the trials relating to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai trials are not likely to deliver results anytime soon. But should this lead to a gaping vacuum in bilateral engagement? Clichéd as it may sound, it is important to reiterate that even at the height of Cold War, the US and Soviet Union never stopped talking.

The famous line Ja Ja Mein Tau Se Nahi Boloon could be a lyrical expression of discontent, but it can’t masquerade as policy.