If India wants to reset its bilateral ties with Pakistan, going beyond the familiar blow-hot, blow-cold narrative, it’s time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to show true statesmanship.

Just as he seized the day in May 2014 to invite Nawaz Sharif and other leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries for his swearing-in, Modi needs to normalise ties with Pakistan if India wants to fulfil its aspirations on the regional and global stage.

Two nuclear-armed neighbours with ambiguous red-lines, but closely intertwined by history and geography, can ill-afford to remain at loggerheads forever. Both sides stand to lose if matters are allowed to fester.

Take the lead

The prime minister will need to show the will, vision and maturity to resume the stalled eight-point composite dialogue process. India had pulled the plug on the dialogue after the beheading of an Indian soldier by what the Indian army had called a Pakistani "border action team" in January 2013.  Since then, the guns have boomed along the Line of Control and the international boundary in Jammu and Kashmir, interspersed with sharp rhetoric from both sides.

The initial "shawl, sari and mango diplomacy" Modi engaged in with Sharif made for good headlines. But beyond these cosmetic gestures, he now needs work on substantive issues such as improving cross-border trade and travel connectivity.

India, of course, cannot afford to ease pressure on Pakistan to check terror emanating from its soil and bring the 26/11 accused to justice. Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of Mumbai attacks and the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba,  brazenly continues to roam about freely, frequently making anti-India statements.

The momentum generated by Modi’s invite to Sharif for his swearing-in was lost in no time, though the latter had walked the extra mile by accepting the invitation despite apprehensions in his country and widespread criticism thereafter.

Intractable dispute

The latest round of squabbling came on Monday against the backdrop of leaders of Kashmir's separatist Huriyat Conference attending a Pakistan National Day reception at its High Commission in the capital. Within hours of Modi conveying warm greetings to  Sharif, New Delhi issued a stern statement reminding Islamabad that there can be no third-party involvement in what is strictly a bilateral issue. The next day, Islamabad promptly reiterated its demand for a plebiscite to settle the Kashmir dispute.

The exchange, once again, emphasised that the Kashmir issue remains the main intractable dispute between the two nations. The brouhaha over junior foreign minister Gen (retd) VK Singh’s tweets, with some television channels hyperventilating, was just the sideshow.

It seems ironic that Modi, who has an iron grip on the government and has been driving the country’s foreign policy, has been unable to do anything substantial on the Pakistan front.

Bilateral relations continue to lurch from attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement to bitter bickering. As ties trundle along with no significant outcomes yet under the Modi government, one thing is for sure. The government will need to shed the "one step forward, two steps back" approach it has adopted ever since it reached out to Pakistan last May.

Easy deliverables

The Pakistan National Day squabble erupted  barely three weeks after foreign secretary S Jaishankar travelled to Islamabad as part of his SAARC Yatra and held discussions with his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.  After the meeting, Jaishankar said the two sides “agreed to work together to find common ground and narrow differences”.

While Kashmir, Siachen and other contentious issues will understandably take time and political will, work on easy deliverables like trade and travel could begin. The Sir Creek maritime boundary issue, a 96-km strip of disputed waters in the Rann of Kutch marshlands, is another issue that can be easily resolved. With most of the groundwork done, it was torpedoed by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack.

The way ahead

Pakistan is the chair of the SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad in 2016. Will Modi make this trip to Pakistan, raising the prospects of a bilateral meeting with Sharif on its sidelines? After all, his predecessor Manmohan Singh was unable to visit the country of his birth despite being the prime minister for two terms and frequently expressing the desire to do so.

If ties improve, India might be granted the Most Favoured Nation status by Pakistan – something that’s been pending for long and has been a sticking point with New Delhi. Islamabad maintains it’s also due to the fact that the balance of trade is hugely tilted in India’s favour.

A lot depends on the deftness with which Modi handles India’s relations with Pakistan. Engagement will go a long way in normalising ties and ensuring regional stability. You may not be able to choose your neighbours, but you can surely ensure good relations.