Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shook hands and exchanged pleasantries during their interaction on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. They missed an opportunity to listen to each other but even the “courtesy” handshake has raised hopes of the resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar replied to letters by their Pakistani counterparts. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Office, they “responded positively” to Pakistan’s offer for talks. However, India’s Ministry of External Affairs rejected Pakistan’s claim that a request had been made to the Pakistan side for talks. “The Indian response is as per the established diplomatic practice and the Indian side highlighted that New Delhi seeks normal and cooperative relations with all neighbours, including Pakistan,” it said in a statement. However, it warned the media not to speculate on the correspondence between the prime ministers and foreign ministers of the two countries. It underlined that the gesture to congratulate the new office holders and for them to respond was an established diplomatic practice. In response to congratulatory messages from Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, both Modi and new External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar urged Islamabad to create an environment for dialogue. Modi wrote, “It is important to build an environment of trust, free of terror, violence, and hostility.” And Jaishankar too emphasised the need for an “atmosphere free from the shadow of terror and violence.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had congratulated him on his second term as the prime minister of India following general elections. He also renewed Pakistan’s offer to hold dialogue with India to resolve contentious issues, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute and terrorism, to restore peace in the region, and address the problems confronting the people of the two countries. In his letter, he agreed to hold talks on the issue of terrorism on India’s demand. The prime minister also emphasised the need to work together on the basis of mutual respect and trust to address challenges faced by the people of both the countries, including poverty and underdevelopment. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had also written a letter to his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, congratulating him on assuming office.
According to Pakistani officials, the letters stated that India was ready to hold a comprehensive and concrete dialogue between the two countries. Quoting the letters, they said India wanted a relationship with all countries along with peace and development in the region. “India has always preferred the development of the people. India is ready to hold discussions with Pakistan and other countries, with a special focus on terrorism in negotiations,” they added. The letters came on the heels of the first face-to-face interaction between the prime ministers, which Qureshi described as a “courtesy” meeting. The foreign minister said Imran and Modi shook hands and exchanged pleasantries during their interaction on the sidelines of the 19th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek.
Soon after coming to power last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan had expressed the hope that sour relations between the nuclear neighbours would become normal. However, a war-like situation emerged between Pakistan and India in February after a suicide bombing in India-occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama district killed more than 40 Indian security forces personnel. India immediately hurled allegations of Pakistan’s involvement, whereas Islamabad strongly rejected the claim and asked for “actionable evidence” to take action. The situation aggravated on February 25, when Indian fighter jets conducted an airstrike on Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in retaliation to the Pulwama attack. The next day, two Indian Air Force MiG 21 aircraft were shot down by the Pakistan Air Force in Kashmir and an Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured. However, the pilot was released and handed over to Indian authorities as a goodwill gesture.
It appears Prime Minister Imran Khan’s repeated offers for talks to India have started bearing fruit. Although Pakistan had closed its airspace to flights to and from India on February 26 after the Balakot standoff, yet it made a rare exception for former Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to fly directly through Pakistani airspace to attend the SCO meeting. The offer was also made to Modi but he did not avail it. Imran Khan was ridiculed by the opposition and critics for “begging” peace from India. However, his loud message was also heard by the international community and India had to respond positively, despite initial reluctance and denials.
Pakistan’s dialogue offers to India cannot be termed its weakness. Pakistan is a nuclear state and its offer is from a position of strength, not weakness. Contrary to the opposition’s charges, it improved the image of Pakistan and its prime minister in the international community. Experts say Pakistan has taken a principled and diplomatic position on talks with India. Despite Pakistan’s utmost efforts and mature outlook on the relationship, India had maintained its cold attitude towards talks. Some said Modi had used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to secure a victory and he would love to use the card in the next election. It is yet to be seen if he changes his mindset after the election. However, his response to Pakistan has rekindled hopes of the people of the two countries to resolve their bilateral issues through talks. If he adopts an obstructionist and stubborn position on Kashmir and human rights abuses against protesters, the problem will compound, which would have serious implications not only India, but the whole region.