10/12/2015 10:24 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

What Just Changed For India And Pakistan? Everything.

India's Broadcast Minister Sushma Swaraj sits behind an Indian flag as she attends a session of the Information Ministers Conference of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Friday, March 8, 2002. (AP Photo/Tariq Aziz)

India and Pakistan have together announced a comprehensive dialogue process that will discuss all issues between the two countries. That sounds a lot like things used to be in the Composite Dialogue process. Except that it’s now called the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. Its contents remain the same: Kashmir and Sir Creek, counter-terrorism and confidence building measures, trade and visas. The only new addition is religious tourism.

And yet, this is a landmark because it marks Narendra Modi giving in to better counsel and resuming such a dialogue with Pakistan. Even if another terror attack halts it, the importance of 9 December 2015 is that Modi, after a year and a half of dilly-dallying, has finally come to the conclusion that the much-reviled composite dialogue is the only way for India and Pakistan move forward.

Until recently, Modi seemed to want to focus only on terrorism, and on directly engaging Pakistan only at the highest level. That he is finally letting diplomats do what they need to do, is a sea change.

Cynics and hawks, make no mistake. This is a turning point where India’s strongest leader in 30 years, and its most Hindutva-heavy yet, has conceded that a comprehensive dialogue process with Pakistan is necessary in India’s interest.

The composite dialogue process has for long been assailed by critics, and increasingly even by votaries of India-Pakistan peace, as weary, outdated and of little use. Even more reviled is the Track Two process, which is ridiculed regularly by hawks as a conspiracy to beget foreign junkets for journalists, retired generals and general interlopers.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ideas such as the Delhi-Lahore bus service, India-Pakistan trade, a new visa regime, a mechanism on mutual prisoners, have all come from both the composite dialogue process and the Track Two. The strongest achievement of the India-Pakistan peace dialogue by far has been the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control, which resulted in saving countless lives, both military and civilian, and reduced terrorist infiltration from Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir.

You could say that the 2003 ceasefire was inevitable because of the post-9/11 situation, with the US breathing heavily down Pakistan’s neck. However, exploiting the right moment to make even incremental progress necessitates a continuing dialogue between diplomats, civil society and ordinary citizens.

Since Modi came to power, he has given Indian foreign policy a great push. Engaging with the world on India’s behalf, even travelling to all corners of the globe for it, has been a top priority for him. Given his love for foreign policy, it was strange that his approach towards Pakistan seemed to be one of ignoring it. Ignoring India’s greatest foreign policy challenge is simply not an option, and Modi has taken his time to learn that.

The best of us are cynical of Indo-Pakistan talks, and for good reason, but we must ask what brought about this change in Modi’s approach towards Pakistan. The world wants India and Pakistan to talk, Washington and Beijing included. Finding one excuse after another of avoiding an India-Pakistan peace process makes India look like the errant child. This was changing the usual equation, where the blame was on Pakistan for halting talks through terrorist strikes.

The reality check may surprise some Indians, but India is simply not in a position to isolate Pakistan. A greater tilt towards the United States by the Modi government has brought Beijing closer to Islamabad. Washington needs Islamabad for the Afghanistan peace process. Thanks to Pakistan’s geographic location, it will always be an important country for the world, and for India.

The mention of Jammu & Kashmir in the joint statement makes it clear that India cannot pretend Kashmir is not a dispute. No matter how much the core constituency of Modi’s party may dislike it, India is forced to talk Kashmir with Pakistan, because Pakistan’s answer to not talking about Kashmir is terrorism.

If Kashmir wasn’t a dispute, the Line of Control would be an international border. If Kashmir is not an issue, why can’t Indians go and holiday in Gilgit? Kashmir, and indeed all disputes, needn’t end with a winner and a loser. Moving towards a win-win solution requires thinking out of the box, and that can only be done if there is a sustained dialogue process. One example of such imaginative thinking was the Musharraf-Manmohan four-point formula, evolved in just the kind of secrecy as the India-Pakistan talks in Bangkok that have brought about the current thaw.

Many in Pakistan think India’s Hindu nationalists are a hurdle in India-Pakistan peace, whether or not they are in power. Many in India feel it is the Pakistan Army that does not want peace. Moving beyond these fixed perceptions needs incremental change, confidence building measures, trusting and then verifying. Better late than never, Narendra Modi has made a start.

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