A meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation that India will host in May is expected to bring together foreign ministers of the regional grouping, which includes China, Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Bilateral ties with Pakistan and China are at a new low. But multilateral settings are often viewed as opportunities for countries with problematic relations to find a way forward, as the famous Musharraf-Vajpayee handshake did for India and Pakistan at the Kathmandu SAARC summit 20 years ago. Equally, nothing may change, as seen from the “exchange of pleasantries” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia last November.
The history of India-Pakistan attempts to find common bilateral ground during multilateral meetings gives a veritable tour of exotic settings, from Male to Sharm El-Sheikh to Thimphu, from New York to Ufa to Dushanbe. Many of these attempts, however, were stillborn. Former PM Manmohan Singh never recovered politically after his own party opposed his joint statement with Pakistan at Sharm El-Sheikh. Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif was excoriated at home for a joint statement with Modi at Ufa that made no mention of Kashmir. When the multilateral meeting is to be hosted by a country that is on one side of the rift, the first step is for the other side to accept the invitation. At times, the other side arrives hoping to be welcomed warmly but gets a chilly reception, as the then Pakistan foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, found at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December 2016, in a year that India had suffered Pathankot, Nagrota and Uri and hit back with the surgical strikes across the LoC. Whether or not Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto attends the May meeting is likely to be a point of interest.
That question assumes greater significance in light of Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif’s statement that his country had learnt its lessons from three wars with India and that he and PM Modi should meet and discuss all “burning issues”, even though it was hemmed in by the caveat on Kashmir. Moreover, Pakistan’s foreign minister has been intemperate in his rhetoric. And Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said in Davos that she does “not see a partner currently in the Prime Minister of India to take this project [of peace-building] forward”. An election is upcoming in Pakistan, and having committed themselves to a position, both Bhutto and Khar would be mindful that their actions must match their words, while also considering how they might be received in Delhi. But despite this, if there is an opportunity for a thaw, India must not be the one to miss it.