Going the distance

Singh, Sharif have taken a small step. More depends on whether their armies can hold the ceasefire.

That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, who has recently returned to power with a strong mandate, in New York on Sunday, is a welcome development. But the fact that the leaders of India and Pakistan continue to meet in distant corners of the world, rather than travel across the border, underlines the enduring problems of the relationship. That the situation had become a lot more fragile in recent months was made clear by the fact that the PM was unwilling to confirm the meeting until he boarded the plane. For Singh, who has so consistently sought to improve relations with Pakistan, even a casual meeting with Sharif on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly had become a big political burden to carry.

The killing of Indian soldiers on the border in January and August has soured public opinion in Delhi. Hawkish TV anchors and strategic experts raised the pitch against the PM's meeting with Sharif. The BJP, unsurprisingly, has had a field day denouncing the government's allegedly weak policy on Pakistan. On his part, the PM has been unwilling to make the political case for sustained talks with the Pakistani leadership. The Congress party, with an eye on the elections and an ingrained aversion to any political risk on the foreign policy front, has offered little support to Singh's efforts to normalise relations. The terror attack in Jammu last week, apparently by infiltrators from across the border, made the PM's task that much more difficult.

The PM, despite his growing domestic isolation on his Pakistan policy, chose to meet Sharif in New York. But what he could achieve with Sharif was limited by his reduced room for manoeuvre at home. Singh pressed Sharif to bring the perpetrators of the outrageous 26/11 attack on Mumbai to speedy justice. The PM also underlined the urgency of ensuring peace on the border and Sharif has apparently concurred. The two leaders have ordered their military commanders to find ways to end the current violations of the decade-long ceasefire on the Line of Control that has been beneficial to both sides. If the two armies can work out procedures to strengthen the ceasefire, the renewed trust could pave the way for additional steps to improve relations. For now, though, it remains to be seen if Singh and Sharif have the will to get their armies to do the right thing.

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