Calling on Pakistan
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The visits to Pakistan by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the deputy chief minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, could well be part of a recast conversation between India and its neighbour. Power has been shifting away from the Centre, towards the men and women who govern the states, and they also bring a sense of shared stakes to cross-border interaction. There are clear advantages, therefore, to making space for them at the table. Badal, for instance, has travelled to Pakistan with ideas for expanding cooperation between the two Punjabs — a relationship with the potential to remake and energise trade and economic ties between the two nations. The Bihar chief minister, whose itinerary includes visits to the mausoleums of Jinnah and Ranjit Singh and is packed with meetings and lectures, has previously taken the initiative with China and Nepal.
Begun on A.B. Vajpayee's watch, progress in India-Pakistan ties hasn't come easy. It was interrupted by the Kargil conflict in 1999 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008 that threatened to derail the process. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to persist with Vajpayee's bold initiative, and to build on it, has steadily moved the two neighbours to a place where Pakistan is on track to begin normal trade relations with India by this year's end. Knowing the civilian government's difficulties in addressing India's security concerns, the two-pronged strategy of pressing Pakistan on terror while making progress wherever possible is Delhi's only option. Progress in the bilateral relationship, however, will remain fragile. In as much as they broadbase the engagement between the two countries, visits like those by Badal and Kumar could help it withstand the inevitable reverses.
There are limits to international diplomacy through chief ministers, though, and the intransigence displayed by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee vis-a-vis India's relationship with Bangladesh remains a cautionary tale. Sometimes regional leaders can be led by local, narrower considerations, making them unwilling or unable to see the national interest. Yet, such initiatives remain a creative way to enlarge and deepen diplomatic engagements.
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