Days after Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said in an interview that the country desires peace with India and had learnt its lessons from three wars, India reportedly invited foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers' meeting in Goa in May, a report stated.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is said to have sent the invitation to Zardari through the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, as per The Indian Express.
If Pakistan accepts the invitation, it will mark the first such visit of a high government official in the last 12 years.
Similar invitations have also been sent to China, Russia and Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which are all members of the SCO.
The invitation to Pakistan is being looked at as a significant development, especially considering that ties between the two neighbours are at a historic low.
Laying the groundwork for the talks, a senior official told The Indian Express:
"In keeping with its 'Neighbourhood First Policy', India desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. India’s consistent position is that issues, if any, between India and Pakistan should be resolved bilaterally and peacefully, in an atmosphere free of terror and violence. The onus is on Pakistan to create such a conducive environment. It has been made clear that India will not compromise on issues relating to national security and will take firm and decisive steps to deal with all attempts to undermine India’s security and territorial integrity."
Will the Invite Lead To a Breakthrough in Relations?
While there is much optimism that the invitation will lead to an improvement in ties between the two countries, experts have pleaded caution.
AK Mohapatra, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Quint that India as the host country extended an invitation to Pakistan as the latter is a member of the SCO, and New Delhi would not like to be seen as in an unfriendly light. Also, unless there are bilateral talks between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SCO, no progress in the relations can be expected.
"I am not very optimistic about a breakthrough. But maybe the talks will create some positive conditions for further discussions and dialogue," Mohapatra said. "The maximum one can expect from these talks is that it will create scope for talks between the respective prime ministers of India and Pakistan in the future."
He contested that the main obstacle to discussions with Islamabad remains its support to cross-border terrorism – an issue that India will absolutely not compromise with.
"From the Indian side, the issue of cross-border terrorism will be dominating the discourse. The Indian side definitely has the upper hand, and there is a possibility that the Indian side will be dictating terms. Whether the talks succeed will depend on to what extent Pakistan is ready to accept India's terms," he told The Quint.
What further complicates matters is the primacy of Pakistan's military in policy-making, its ideology surrounding the sovereign status of Jammu and Kashmir and the vehemence towards India's decision to abrogate Article 370.
"Unless Pakistan undergoes genuine democratisation, it is difficult to see a breakthrough. Because there will always be some political actors across the border that will try to divert the attention of the public rather than focus on their own weaknesses and limitations," Mohapatra added.
India-Pak Ties In Recent Years
Ties between India and Pakistan have been on a downward trend since 2016, particularly since Pakistani-sponsored terror attacks in Pathankot (January 2016), Uri (September 2016), and Pulwama (February 2019).
India's decision to revoke the special status of J&K in August 2019 have also dented the relationship considerably, as it led to the downgrading of diplomatic relations, and a complete halt to trade and cross-border bus and train services.
A glimmer of hope for a thaw in relations was seen in August 2015, when India invited the then Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz for talks. However, the meeting was cancelled after the then external affairs minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, asked Aziz to not meet members of the separatist Hurriyat Conference in India.
Swaraj was also the last Indian external affairs minister to have visited Pakistan in December 2015 to attend the Heart of Asia conference.
There are, however, a few positives in the relationship considering where it stands today. For one, a ceasefire that was inked between the two countries in February 2021 has been successfully observed even almost two years after it was signed. Furthermore, the Indus Waters Treaty is being respected by both sides and there has been no disruption in religious pilgrimages through the Kartarpur Corridor.
(With inputs from The Indian Express.)