Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh always wanted to visit Pakistan, to see the place of his birth and also to cement his place in history as the leader who helped bring peace to the subcontinent. Yet the stop-start nature of India-Pakistan talks over Singh's decade-long tenure meant that was not to be. Two years into his prime ministership, Narendra Modi is about to be given the opportunity that Singh never had – and his team is trying desperately not to ruin it.

Relations with Pakistan began very positively under Modi, after he invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony last year. In July, Sharif and Modi met again in Ufa, Russia, on the sidelines of a summit, and even shook hands. That turned into a joint statement with no mention of the Kashmir issue, which immediately got spun as a great victory in India and a capitulation in Pakistan. Then, just as talks were about to go forward, the Modi government decided to take a tough stance on Pakistan's tradition of meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders before talking to New Delhi. Talks were called off, stalling further discussions.

Last week, Sharif and Modi had a surprise handshake-meet on the sidelines of the Paris climate change conference. Sharif also told international media that he was prepared for unconditional discussions. And, it was revealed, that on Sunday the National Security Advisors of both nations had met in secret in Bangkok and even churned out a joint statement promising to have further discussions on all subjects, including Kashmir.

Heart of Asia

On Tuesday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is in Islamabad to attend the 'Heart of Asia' conference where leaders from the region and the international community will discuss Afghanistan's future. On the sidelines of that summit, Swaraj will be meeting with her counterpart as well as Prime Minister Sharif, with the agenda essentially being talks about talks, i.e. discussing the resumption of the composite dialogue that was suspended because of separatist concerns.

This is crucial because it sets the stage for what is likely to be the key moment in Modi's larger Pakistan policy, coming as it will about midway through his term as prime minister. Next year, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation's somewhat-annual summit is set to be held in Islamabad. From his swearing in onwards, Modi has always espoused a Neighbourhood First policy, even if it hasn't actually gone all that well.

This gives Modi a natural reason to visit Pakistan for the SAARC summit, even in the face of pushback from the Opposition as well as his own party at home. Presuming that actually happens, Modi would be the first prime minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 when he too was visiting for a SAARC summit.

Reasons to talk

There have been a few other grounds on which the government has made its case for resuming its dialogue with Pakistan. One is climate change. It's not entirely coincidence that Sharif and Modi shook hands in Paris on the sidelines of the UN's climate change summit. India has taken up the role of the spokesperson for developing nations around the world in international climate change negotations, and Pakistan, as a fellow developing country, has usually followed suit.

Another is Afghanistan. Though Islamabad and New Delhi have vastly different approaches to the troubled country, it would not do to have Pakistan at the table in any major conference on Afghanistan's future, without also having India's voice there. Kabul, after a brief period of tilting heavily away from India in the aftermath of Hamid Karzai's departure, has started talking to New Delhi again, making continued engagement with the country even more crucial.

Then there's South Asia itself. SAARC has often not been much more than a talking shop, compared to say the Association of South East Asian Nations next door. Much of this is attributed to the frosty relations between the two largest SAARC nations, India and Pakistan. Fixing that relationship could make the regional forum that much more efficient.

Laying groundwork 

And finally there's the international community. It's not insignificant that both the United States and China have pointedly welcomed the dialogue efforts, nor is it coincidence that Sharif made his offer of unconditional talks right after meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and soon after his visit to Washington. Modi's government also, concerned about India's image after the intolerance debate got out of hand, would find it convenient to appear conciliatory and open to dialogue at a time when it is also trying to court investment.

The Modi government seems to be thinking ahead here, attempting to lay the groundwork for the SAARC summit next year. It seems to have anticipated the blowback from the Opposition, promptly announcing that Swaraj will give a statement in Parliament once she has returned from Islamabad. It will have to ensure that the text of any statement is also defensible, ideally to both Indian and Pakistani constituencies. And most of all it will have to emphasise the reasons India and Pakistan continue to talk, despite all that inevitably comes in the way.