Sharif Open to India-Pakistan Peace Talks After Modi Meeting

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed his meeting with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi as a “historic opportunity” and said he’s ready for talks on all topics to overcome years of mistrust.

Sharif, who met Modi yesterday in New Delhi on his first full day as India’s leader, said the nations should end a cycle of confrontation and focus on cooperation. Sharif has four years left in his term, while Modi is fresh off winning the biggest Indian election mandate in 30 years.

“I stressed to the prime minister that we have a common agenda of development and economic revival, which is not possible to achieve without peace and stability in the region,” Sharif told reporters in New Delhi after meeting Modi. “I urged that together we should rid the region of instability and insecurity that has plagued us for decades.”

The meeting marks a fresh start for the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought three wars since the British carved up South Asia in 1947. 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.

“It is a major step, but there have been major steps before and relations have not gotten any better,” said Kamal Mitra, a professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “You have two different roads that are crisscrossing all the time. The one of friendship symbolized most with trade and the one of terrorism and insecurity with Kashmir at the center,” he said.

‘Peaceful, Friendly’

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 yesterday. Modi accepted invitations to visit Pakistan and other nations in the region, she said.

“We want a good relationship with Pakistan,” Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj told reporters in New Delhi today. “Talks will be effective and successful if there is a stop to terrorism first.”

Modi invited Sharif and other leaders of the eight-member South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation to attend his swearing-in ceremony on May 26, an unprecedented move.

Mumbai Attacks

Modi and Sharif shook hands as they met at Hyderabad House, a former palace close to the main ceremonial avenue in New Delhi. The meeting was the second between prime ministers from India and Pakistan since peace talks resumed in 2011 after dialogue was shattered when Pakistani gunmen attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people.

Sharif won elections last year to become Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time and has pledged to improve ties with India. The visit was his first to India since 1991, when he attended former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in New Delhi. The country’s leaders last met in September in New York, where they pledged to enforce the cease-fire in Kashmir, a disputed border region.

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.

Economic Ties

While India and Pakistan share a 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) 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 on May 26 blamed the Herat strike on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that India says conducted the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Modi also met with Karzai yesterday in New Delhi. Singh, the Indian foreign secretary, declined to comment on Karzai’s claim that a Pakistan-based group conducted the Herat attack.

Obstacles Remain

“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.

“I pointed out that we were at the beginning of our respective tenures with a clear mandate,” Sharif told reporters today. “This provides us with the opportunity of meeting the hopes and aspirations of our peoples.

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