India and Pakistan today decided to explore the way forward in bilateral ties through their Foreign Secretaries after a "constructive" meeting between Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi who voiced concerns over terrorism originating from Pakistan.
On his first day in office, Modi held talks with all the eight foreign leaders who attended his swearing-in ceremony yesterday, but his most substantive discussion was with Sharif who then returned home.
During the 45-minute meeting, Modi, who has been sharply critical of his predecessor Manmohan Singh's Pakistan policy, expressed the hope that India-Pakistan relations would progress in the economic, cultural and political fields in the same manner that India's relations with her other SAARC neighbours have progressed in recent years.
Briefing reporters on Modi's meeting with Sharif and other SAARC leaders, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh said Modi remarked that Pakistan must abide by its commitment to prevent its territory and the territory under its control from being used to spread terrorism against India.
Modi also hoped that necessary steps will be taken to expedite the trial in Pakistan relating to Mumbai terror attack case and ensure punishment to the accused, she said.
The Prime Ministers agreed that the Foreign Secretaries will remain in touch and explore how to move forward, Singh said. Significantly, the element of Foreign Secretaries meet to take forward the ties has been reintroduced by the two countries after nearly two years.
India and Pakistan have been, for the past two years, talking about meetings between their Director General of Military Operations in view of the spate of ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC).
Describing his meeting with Modi "good and constructive" Sharif, before his departure for Pakistan, read out a statement to media which said that his government stands ready to discuss all issues between the two countries in a spirit of cooperation and sincerity.
During his visit, Sharif did not meet Kashmiri separatist Hurriyat representatives, a normal norm for most of the Pakistani leadership, nor did he mention Kashmir in his pre-departure statement.
During the meeting, Modi said the two countries could move towards full normalisation of trade on the basis of the September, 2012 road-map on political and economic relations.
On trade, the Foreign Secretary said the two leaders discussed the issue of non-discriminatory market access to be given by Pakistan.
Asked whether Modi raised the issue of the presence of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, Singh said many things including terrorism were discussed. "I don't want to speak more on this."
"We want peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan. However, for such relations to proceed, it is important that terror and violence is brought to an end," she said.
Asked if India was satisfied with the discussions on the 26/11 issue, Singh said the meeting was very constructive and both sides wanted to understand the concerns of the other side
She said the acceptance of the invitation by the SAARC leaders and their presence in the swearing-in ceremony marks a new starting point in the relations.
Modi noted that it was good to see all the eight leaders graciously accepting the invitation and their presence has enriched the celebration of Indian democracy.
"This is a new beginning. This is the first time when all the SAARC leaders have been present on an occasion like this," she said adding one leader wondered whether there should have a SAARC summit here.
Asked whether Modi will travel to Pakistan, Singh said invitations have come and they have been accepted but no dates have been finalised. "Dates have to be worked out," she said.
When queried whether the Composite Dialogue process would be resumed, she said the Foreign Secretaries will meet to find a way forward.
Pitching for "working together" in his maiden meeting with Modi, Sharif said both will have to strive to change confrontation into cooperation.
"We agreed that our meeting in New Delhi, should be a historic opportunity for both our countries...," Sharif said and recalled his invitation to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore in February 1999 and that he "intended to pick up the threads of the Lahore Declaration, from where it had to be left off in October 1999".
Don't raise hopes too high! Neither Sharif nor Modi is free to act as he pleases.
What is noteworthy is that in the recent elections in Pakistan, all three contenders spoke of the need for better relations with India, something they would do only if that reflected the popular mood.
Use the principle of "trust but verify" or else we will stay in the extremes of "trust" or "distrust" (for now it is of course "distrust").
Personally, I believe that neighbors can be at peace with each other only if they are at peace with themselves first, i.e., they are comfortable with themselves first and foremost, because from that comes a self-confidence and self-esteem on which peace can be built. So I don't think we are there yet and of course IMHO Pakistan is even further away and in some sense going backwards on this count. Also, neither party can help the other on this - it has to come from within.
Nontheless, talking never hurt - so keep at it. Just stay realistic and not get carried away by marketing/personalities/theatrics/hoopla. Lasting relationships is a matter of substance - very little about "form".