It may have lasted for a minute. But in the end, it was the warm handshake between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif that will remain the most enduring image and the most tweeted photo of the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu.
The ringing applause that followed the handshake between the leaders of India and Pakistan and the beaming faces at the end of the Kathmandu summit on November 27 said it all. In the end, despite the official disclaimer that the SAARC is not about India and Pakistan, it was clear that the eight-nation regional grouping can only take off if that handshake translates into a meaningful dialogue between the two estranged neighbours of South Asia.
In a sense, the hype about the Modi-Sharif handshake, with television news channels hysterically speculating 24×7 about a possible meeting between the two leaders which did not happen, also ironically underlines diminishing expectations about the India-Pakistan relations that remain eternally enmeshed in mutual recriminations and the thick fog of suspicion.
In a different time and place, the fact that the meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan did not take place would have been the blockbuster headline, but most likely that handshake will resonate across media outlets.
The official explanation from the Indian side was that the Pakistani side did not seek a meeting with the Indian PM, so the meeting was simply not on the radar screen. The Pakistani side maintained that it was India’s call as it had unilaterally cancelled the foreign-secretary level talks in August on grounds of the Pakistani envoy meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders just ahead of the talks. By doing so, the Modi government had drawn a new red line vis-à-vis engagement with Pakistan. Subsequently, Pakistan’s determined internationalization of the Kashmir issue and blaming India for the relentless cross-border violence had hardened the posture of the Modi government, with New Delhi consistently reiterating that any meaningful talks can only take place within the ambit of the Shimla Pact and the Lahore Declaration, which means Pakistan has to abandon the internationalization route forthwith.
Just ahead of the SAARC summit, Mr Sharif shrank Mr Modi’s options by tom-toming the Kashmir dispute and renew online casino’s his misplaced efforts to internationalise the issue by asking US President Barack Obama to take up the Kashmir issue when he visits New Delhi as India’s guest of honour at the Republic Day parade.
Against this backdrop, with both sides hardening postures, any prospect of a meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Shairf on the sidelines of the SAARC summit was irreducibly bleak and was like hoping against hope. But the mechanical optimists never give up conjuring up situations and possibilities that simply don’t exist.
From now on, there is no window of opportunity in the near future for a meeting between the leaders of the two nuclear-armed nations. With competitive power games intensifying in Afghanistan amid the unfolding withdrawal of foreign combat troops, the India-Pakistan relations will remain stalled for quite some time.
However, in all fairness, one must give the fabled Modi-Sharif handshake some credit for salvaging the SAARC summit which has ended on a hopeful note with Pakistan finally going along with a defining pact for creating regional electricity grid. Besides, in diplomacy, even small gestures matter. For all one’s cynicism, the handshake may well turn into a thaw if both sides show flexibility to move beyond hardening rhetoric and stated positions. All’s well that ends well, and with a smile!
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story. He is in Kathmandu to report and analyse the 18th SAARC summit)
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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