The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in Samarkand will have both India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s Shehbaz Sharif attending. As always whenever leaders of the two countries are at the same venue, it is accompanied by fervid speculation about a bilateral meeting. Earlier at a time when SAARC summits were regular events in the diplomatic calendar, the India-Pakistan narrative would grab media headlines. So much so that countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal would often get annoyed that India-Pakistan bilateral had hijacked the main agenda of the SAARC summit.
There are no indications that Modi and Sharif will have a separate meeting on the sidelines of the SCO. Bilateral meetings between prime ministers are structured and need planning. So far there has been no request from either side for one. But the two leaders will certainly have informal interaction, a brief exchange of pleasantries when they meet during the course of the two-day summit. Indian leaders, whether it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the past, or Modi himself share a good equation with Nawaz Sharif.
Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of Nawaz and now heads a coalition government in Pakistan. The two prime ministers will certainly speak to each other with Modi offering his condolences for the death and destruction caused by unprecedented floods in Pakistan. The PM had earlier too expressed his condolences. Perhaps this meeting with Shebaz Sharif will push India to extend assistance to the flood-hit people of Pakistan, something New Delhi should have done considering the extent of the tragedy. It would be an appropriate goodwill gesture. Occasionally in diplomacy, a brief conversation can lead to something more as happened in 2015.
Both Modi and former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif attended the Paris Climate Conference in November 2015. Relations between the two South Asian neighbours at that time was predictably tense. A meeting between the national security advisers of the two countries was called off in August. There was no scheduled meeting between the two leaders but they sat on a sofa and appeared to have serious chat with each other. Vikas Swarup the then foreign office spokesman described the meeting as an "exchange of courtesies." Pakistan projected the meeting differently, with the Associated Press of Pakistan (the govt news agency) saying the talks were good and the short meeting was warm and cordial.
But it was an ice-breaker as the next month Prime Minister Modi stopped over in Lahore on his way back from Kabul. It was Christmas Day and Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. It is another matter that the peace move was de-railed by elements within the Pakistan establishment that disliked Nawaz Sharif and did not want peace with India.
A breakthrough in ties appears unlikely at the moment with political uncertainty continuing in Pakistan, triggered by the ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan. The former cricketer turned politician is taking on Bajwa and the establishment. He is hoping to force immediate national elections, prompted by the massive crowds that are turning up to hear him.
Much depends on what happens when army commander Qamar Javed Bajwa retires in November and a new chief is appointed.
Bajwa had apparently fallen out with Imran Khan. But since last year, possibly realizing the gravity of the economic situation had been calling for normalizing ties with India and focussing on growth and development. Whether the next chief will be on the same page as General Bajwa remains to be seen. New Delhi would prefer to wait and watch how the situation evolves. Meantime a humanitarian gesture by India at the time of a major natural calamity in Pakistan would go a long way in promoting goodwill.