On his first official day as India’s leader, Narendra Modi met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as the nuclear-armed neighbors seek to bolster ties that have been strained for decades.
Modi said the two nations could “move immediately” to improve trade ties while calling on Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used for terrorism against India, Sujatha Singh, the top bureaucrat in India’s foreign ministry, told reporters in New Delhi today. Modi accepted invitations to visit Pakistan and other nations in the region, she said.
“We want peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan,” Singh said. “However, for such relations to proceed, it’s important that terror and violence is brought to an end.”
In an unprecedented move, Sharif yesterday attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony along with other leaders of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation. Modi’s party this month won a parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years.
Border conflicts and terrorist strikes have undermined efforts to bring peace and boost trade between India and Pakistan, which have a combined population of more than 1.4 billion. The nations have fought three wars since 1947 and both claim the disputed region of Kashmir.
“This could help in turning a page in our relations,” Sharif, making his first visit to India in 23 years, said in an interview with Indian television channel NDTV yesterday. “We should remove fears, mistrust and misgivings about each other.”
The two leaders shook hands as they met today at Hyderabad House, a former palace close to the ceremonial avenue in New Delhi. The nations could look to sign deals expanding trade in electricity and hydrocarbon products and make it easier for banks to open branches, the Indian Express reported, without saying where it got the information.
Sharif won elections last year to become Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time and has pledged to improve ties with India. He’s on his first visit to India since 1991, when he attended former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in New Delhi.
India and Pakistan’s prime ministers are meeting for the second time since peace talks resumed in 2011 after dialogue was shattered when Pakistani gunmen attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. The country’s leaders last met in September in New York, where they pledged new measures to enforce the cease-fire in Kashmir.
India’s economy will expand 5.4 percent in the fiscal year through March 31, the International Monetary Fund predicts, after averaging growth of more than 7 percent in the past decade. Pakistan’s economic growth will slow to 3.1 percent in 2014 from 3.6 in 2013, the IMF forecasts.
While India and Pakistan share a 2,000-mile border and have mutually understandable languages, trade between the nations totaled $2.6 billion last year. That’s less than 0.5 percent of India’s combined commerce with other nations, according to government data.
Pakistan has yet to follow through on a November 2011 pledge to grant India most-favored nation status, which would provide greater access to Indian exports. The move would remove 1,200 items from a banned list.
An attack on India’s consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, last week underscored the challenges to improved ties between India and Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an interview with Headlines Today television channel yesterday blamed the Herat strike on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that India says conducted the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Modi met with Karzai today in New Delhi.
“While we want closer ties with Pakistan, I don’t think it would be possible,” said Dipankar Banerjee, founding director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, who commanded troops on the border with Pakistan. “There are elements within Pakistan strongly against any such moves. They will try to put obstacles in the way of any rapprochement.”
Some progress on peace talks has been made even while breakthroughs have been elusive. Eighteen months ago, India and Pakistan agreed on a new visa regime to make travel between the countries easier, a measure meant to spur regional trade and establish trust.
Before Sharif’s visit, Pakistan released 151 Indian fishermen it had detained and said it’s seeking reciprocal measures. Modi welcomed the move on his Twitter account.
“We need to convert our similarities into strength,” Sharif said in the NDTV interview.