India announced on Thursday that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will be meeting her Pakistan counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureishi, in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next week. Talks between the two countries have been suspended since 2015, and so news of a meeting suggests some forward movement on India’s biggest foreign policy headache. But it also comes after a month that was full of mixed messages, from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman talking about India cutting the heads of Pakistani soldiers, to Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh saying new Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was “propped up” by the Army. In other words, business as usual for Indo-Pakistan ties.
“I can confirm that on the request of the Pakistani side, a meeting between the external affairs minister and Pakistani foreign minister will take place on the sidelines of the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] at a mutually convenient date and time,” said Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the ministry. “This is just a meeting, not talks or resumption of dialogue.”
Here is what has happened in the last few weeks between the two nations:
- July: After it became clear that his party would be controlling Parliament, incoming Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “If India takes one step, Pakistan will take two.”
- August: The militaries of India and Pakistan, for the first time, took part in joint anti-terror drills at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The two countries also resumed talks over water disputes.
- September 14: Imran Khan writes a letter to Narendra Modi “sahab”, proposes a meeting between Mahmood Shah Qureishi and Sushma Swaraj to “explore the way forward” with the hope of restarting the stalled dialogue process.
- September 15: Nirmala Sitharaman says in a TV interview that India too is retaliating to the killing of its soldiers, even if it does not display those killings publicly.
- September 17: VK Singh says he does not know if things will change in Pakistan after Imran Khan takes charge. “After all, the person has been propped up by the Army. The Army still rules. So, let us wait and watch how things go.”
- September 20: The Ministry of External Affairs says it is accepting Khan’s offer, and that Swaraj will meet Qureishi in New York.
Crucially, Kumar, the ministry spokesperson, said that no agenda had been finalised for the meeting, or even a date for that matter. But it will most likely be a meeting about meetings: As Khan proposed, the informal discussion could pave the way for a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit to take place. SAARC is supposed to be the primary multilateral forum for both India and Pakistan, but tensions between the two countries often means that it is barely functional.
The last SAARC summit took place in Nepal in 2014, with the next one, slated for Islamabad in 2016 having to be called off because India, and later also Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, were unwilling to participate. Now Khan is hoping he can start over, convince India to take part in a SAARC summit and use that occasion to restart the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue.
What stands in the way? When it concerns these two nuclear-armed neighbours, any number of issues can crop up that could end up derailing the chances of progress on talks. As VK Singh mentioned, India is wary of Khan’s proximity to the Pakistani Army, which has historically come in the way of attempts to broker peace. There is a belief, however, that a prime minister who is on the same page as the military, unlike Nawaz Sharif in the past, might be in a better position to make promises during talks.
Meanwhile, India is heading into election season, first for three North Indian states, and later general polls. This means an increase in nationalist rhetoric – which often treats Pakistan as the enemy – is quite likely. The government has already made plans to celebrate September 29 as Surgical Strike day, commemorating an occasion in 2016 when it claimed to have carried out strikes across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. And of course, there is also the question of the political situation in Kashmir, where the Centre wants to proceed with local body elections, despite a boycott call coming from both the major Kashmiri political parties.
Despite all of these potential pitfalls, the impending meeting, however informal, represents some progress and might act as a positive incentive for Delhi on the rhetorical front. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power promising a “Neighbourhood First” policy, with all the SAARC heads of state in attendance at his swearing-in ceremony. But that has systematically fallen apart over the last four years, with difficulties in all the relationships in the neighbourhood, particularly Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, aside from Pakistan. Well into his final year, with new leadership in Pakistan, Modi is getting another shot. Will this time be different?