He tried his best

But Manmohan Singh will leave the Pakistan relationship in greater flux than he found it.

After his low-key meeting in New York with Nawaz Sharif on Sunday, there is no avoiding the conclusion that Manmohan Singh will end his prime ministerial tenure without advancing his vision to transform India's relations with Pakistan.

Singh is not alone. Many of his predecessors, some of them much stronger leaders than him, over the last quarter of a century have sought but failed to change the structure of India-Pakistan relations, despite much investment of political capital and diplomatic energies.

Given the burden of history and extended conflict, negotiating with Pakistan has never been easy. But unlike his predecessors, Singh has certainly had more opportunities to take important steps forward but could not convert them into practical results, thanks to the dissipating domestic political consensus on Pakistan.

Rajiv Gandhi reached out to General Zia-ul-Haq during 1985-88 and made an all-out bid to seek a rapprochement with Benazir Bhutto, who succeeded the military dictator. By the time Rajiv's tenure came to an end in 1989, the relationship with Pakistan was in tatters as the Pakistan army, flush with a newly minted nuclear deterrent, fanned the flames of insurgency in Kashmir with impunity.

A decade later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced a daunting challenge as cross-border terrorism from Pakistan acquired great intensity. At the same time, the international pressures to mediate on Kashmir acquired some traction. He had to reverse the Pakistani aggression in Kargil in the summer of 1999 and manage the prolonged military confrontation that followed the terror attack on Parliament in December 2001.

Vajpayee, however, kept faith with the proposition that changing the relationship with Pakistan was in India's national security interest. After trial and error — which included his visit to Lahore in February 1999 and the invitation to General Pervez Musharraf to visit Agra in July 2001 — Vajpayee successfully hammered out a framework for building peace with Pakistan when he travelled to Islamabad in January 2004. Meanwhile, Vajpayee's significant outreach to the United States helped make Washington neutral on the Kashmir question and reduce the international pressures on India.

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