External Affairs

All Eyes Will Be on the Modi-Sharif Meeting on Friday

TIME FOR A RESET NOW: Narendra Modi greets Nawaz Sharif in Delhi as President Pranab Mukherjee looks on in this photograph from May 26, 2014.

TIME FOR A RESET NOW: Narendra Modi greets Nawaz Sharif in Delhi as President Pranab Mukherjee looks on in this photograph from May 26, 2014.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif will meet in Ufa, Russia on Friday after a gap of more than seven months but it is far from certain whether the two sides are ready to move the bilateral relationship on to a firmer plane.

“It is confirmed. PM @narendramodi and PM Nawaz Sharif will have a bilateral meeting in Ufa tomorrow at 9.15 am (9.45 am IST) on sidelines of SCO Summit,” External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup tweeted.

In Islamabad, the official spokesperson of the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a similar announcement but added an extra line of information: “The two leaders will discuss all issues of importance to both sides.”

Asked if the meeting might see a reduction in the tension that has characterised India-Pakistan relations in the past few months, the Pakistani spokesperson described the upcoming encounter as a “positive development”. “Tomorrow’s meeting between the two Prime Ministers is expected to have a positive impact on bilateral relations and [at] regional and international levels. As you are aware, [the] international community is also interested in [the] improvement of relations between Pakistan and India as it would benefit not only the peoples of the two countries but also the whole region.”

Modi and Sharif will attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Friday, where SCO leaders are expected to make a formal announcement of their decision to admit India and Pakistan as members.

Asked by reporters if he was “hopeful” about his meeting with the Indian PM, Sharif parried the question. “Let us first talk. Then I will talk to you.”

The one and only substantive meeting the two leaders have had so far was in Delhi soon after Modi took his oath as Prime Minister. Sharif was one of several South Asian leaders who attended the ceremony in what was meant to be the Modi government’s signal that it was according top priority to the subcontinent in its foreign policy.

The meeting between Modi and Sharif went well, with both leaders later speaking about their personal rapport. In July 2014, it was even announced that the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan would meet in Islamabad in August to explore ways of taking the relationship forward. But a week before that meeting was to take place, India cancelled the talks citing the Pakistan high commissioner’s decision to invite Hurriyat leaders for consultations as the reason.

Since then, despite a brief encounter between the two PMs in Kathmandu during the Saarc summit in November and the visit to Islamabad of Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar earlier this year, relations between India and Pakistan have been in freefall.

The situation along the Line of Control and even the International Boundary saw several weeks of intense firing with each side blaming the other for starting the provocation.

Leaders in both countries have also sharpened their rhetoric, with the Pakistani defence minister and foreign policy advisor accusing India of fomenting acts of terror within Pakistan. From the Indian side, Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, and junior Information Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore threatened Islamabad with an armed response and even the possibility of “using terror against terror” if there were to be another terrorist strike in India launched by elements from across the border. Rathore’s comment, which came in the wake of Indian army action across the border in Myanmar in June, provoked an indirect response from the Pakistani army chief, General Raheel Sharif.

Apart from their war of words and bullets, both sides have also been delaying the grant of visas to each other’s officials.

In recent weeks, however, both India and Pakistan appear to have made some effort to dial back the rhetoric. Modi telephoned Sharif at the onset of Ramzan, spoke about the need for peaceful relations and said India was going to release detained Pakistani fishermen a a gesture of goodwill for the holy Islamic month.

Soon after, India released 88 Pakistani fishermen, while Pakistan reciprocated by freeing 111 Indian fishermen.

In the run up to Ufa, neither side wanted to be seen as making the first move in requesting a meeting, which explains why there was a delay in scheduling and announcing the Friday event.

(With inputs from PTI in Ufa, Russia)