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India-Pakistan premiers move in smoother traffic

Jason Burke

A successful visit to Pakistan by new Indian prime minister Narendra Modi could unlock a cascade of beneficial consequences for both nations.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. (AFP)

NEWS ANALYSIS

Early this week, Delhi’s wide, tree-lined boulevards suffered worse traffic jams than usual. The cause was innumerable “VIP movements”, as journeys undertaken by those considered important enough for all other traffic to be held up are described in South Asian bureaucracy speak.

The most momentous “VIP movements” of the week were those of Narendra Modi to and from his inauguration as the 15th prime minister of the world’s biggest democracy on May 26. But, on the day, the intriguing possibility of another sort of trip was raised – one that might be the most ambitious yet in the astonishing career of a man who has risen from a tea seller to leader of 1.25-billion people.

The trip would be to Pakistan, the hostile neighbouring state, with which India has fought three wars. Such a visit – if successful – could unlock a cascade of beneficial consequences for both nations.

A few months ago, the probability of Modi, a Hindu nationalist, playing peacemaker to a Muslim state such as Pakistan seemed slim. Yet Modi surprised observers by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration ceremony.

The invitation posed a dilemma for Sharif, who leads the ­conservative Pakistan Muslim League. But despite vocal domestic opposition, he flew to Delhi, caused more road closures and became the first Pakistani premier to attend the inauguration of his Indian counterpart.

Unexpected sense of optimism
A 50-minute meeting on May 27 might have produced little of substance. Modi reiterated India’s long-standing complaints about terrorists launched from Pakistani soil to wreak havoc on its interests and citizens. Sharif uttered platitudes about a “historic opportunity”. But even the banality of the diplomatic boilerplate could not hide an unexpected sense of optimism.

The invitation to Modi to visit Pakistan boosted spirits further.

Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh had been keen to travel to Pakistan during his decade in power but was stopped by his centre-left Congress party. Modi’s potent nationalist credentials and the landslide victory of his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) open other possibilities.

Sharif said the two nuclear-armed nations could “pick up the threads” of a previous visit to Pakistan by BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1999. Though that visit resulted in a treaty greeted warmly on both sides, it did not prevent a short war launched by the Pakistani military months later, which froze relations once more. 

Vajpayee did visit Pakistan again in 2004, when a regional summit gave new momentum to peace efforts. These lasted until Pakistan-based militants launched a spectacular and bloody attack on Mumbai, the Indian commercial capital, in 2008.

Sharif and Modi have strong mandates and appear convinced better relations can and should be built through trade. And if these VIP movements lead to more ambitious international ones, the drivers of Delhi may see them as worth the wait. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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