ISLAMABAD (TIP): As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj walked past the Pakistani media waiting in the Foreign Office corridor on Dec 9 evening, she was asked, “Ma’am, koi breakthrough hai.” Standing behind a lectern, she didn’t disappoint. “I was being asked whether there is a breakthrough or big news,” she began in chaste Hindi, adding “Hum dono deshon ne samagra vaarta prarambh karney ka faisla le liya hai.” When her audience, mostly from Pakistan, couldn’t follow her Hindi and protested mildly, she said, “Let me finish. What was being done as composite dialogue, and was later called the resumed dialogue, will now be called the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.”
Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, also standing behind a lectern, did not add anything and let the joint statement do the talking. Qazi M Khalilullah, spokesperson of the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, fished out the one-page document for the cameras. Almost three years after the “resumed dialogue” was stalled following the killing of Indian soldiers, including one who was beheaded, India and Pakistan agreed to restart the dialogue process under the new rubric of “Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue”. The composite dialogue was stopped after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. The comprehensive bilateral dialogue will have all the “pillars” of Indo-Pak relationship and will include confidence building measures (CBMs), Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar barrage/Tulbul navigation project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics control, people-to-people exchanges. Two new pillars have been added— humanitarian issues and religious tourism.
Sources said the idea was not to “disown the past” but make it more contemporary: “After the Geeta and Salman cases have come to light, humanitarian issues have been made another pillar of the relationship.” Swaraj said foreign secretaries of the two countries will meet to decide modalities and schedule of the dialogue. Buoyed by the “success” of the Bangkok meeting, the National Security Advisors will continue to keep talking on “terrorism” — on a parallel track. “We will figure out how it doesn’t duplicate,” a source told The Indian Express, since home secretaries handled counter-terrorism in previous dialogues. From India’s perspective, the Pakistan government’s realisation and acceptance of terrorism as the major challenge was the reason for resumption of the dialogue process. The three-para joint statement gave primacy to terrorism. The second paragraph underlined: “The EAM and the Adviser condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate it. They noted the successful talks on terrorism and security-related issues in Bangkok by the two NSAs and decided that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism. The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial.”
Hours before she announced the breakthrough, Swaraj had a “warm” meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Receiving the Indian delegation at his residence, Sharif was at his humorous best. As he introduced Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahsan Chaudhary, he said, “Yeh hamaare Foreign Secretary hain joh dheeme se muskura rahe hain (this is our Foreign Secretary, he has a faint smile).” Swaraj and Sharif, sources said, chatted a lot in Punjabi. And she met four generations of Sharifs — his mother, daughter Maryam, and his granddaughters. A source privy to the conversation said Sharif gave an “assurance” to Swaraj on speedy conclusion of the Mumbai attack trial. Sources said during the meeting it became clear that Pakistan accepted terrorism as a reality that needs to be confronted and addressed. Sharif told Swaraj that he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — they met briefly in Paris last month— are “very determined” to take the process forward. Swaraj, in turn, replied that the Bangkok meeting between the two NSAs showed that the two sides can engage on “difficult issues” in a “constructive” and “non-accusatory” manner. Sources said Swaraj discussed the Mumbai attack trial with both Sharif and Aziz, and they both dwelt on the issue for a while. “After all, terrorism colours public perception of Pakistan. So, it appears that they have accepted it as a challenge and are ready to accept it, and address. This was not the case before,” an Indian source, familiar with the bilateral conversations, said. The source also said India was not here to win the war of words against Pakistan. “We are here to bring the relationship back on track,” the source said. But the source was cautious and did not declare that Modi will visit Pakistan next year for the SAARC summit, although Swaraj confirmed it earlier in the day. “Thoda bahut change aaya hai… We don’t say it is permanent. So, we will not predict the future. PM has accepted the invitation in Ufa. There’s still some time.” Earlier in the day, Swaraj said it was time for India and Pakistan to display “maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other”. “Let me take this opportunity to extend our hand to Pakistan as well. It is time that we display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation.