Manmohan Singh has always been eager to arrive at some kind of workable relationship with Pakistan. This aim has been a key element of his foreign policy initiatives in spite of strong criticisms from ultra nationalist quarters. Reports suggest that the prime minister retains his keenness to engage with Pakistan. The engagement with Pakistan could very well turn out to be a critical initiative on the part of Mr Singh as he enters the last phase of his second term as prime minister. Between the prime minister’s keenness and the fruition of any such initiative falls the shadow of the political uncertainty in Pakistan. It is one thing to believe that it is necessary to have a dialogue with the Pakistani political leadership, but quite another to actually identify those who represent the political leadership. It is obvious to any observer that power in Pakistan does not lie with any one particular group and there is also a conflict between the democratically elected leadership and the military. This complicates the process of conducting a dialogue since there are no guarantees about who is actually responsible and accountable.
What seems apparent is the need for a multi-pronged approach if Mr Singh’s aim is to come anywhere near success. There is no denying that the relationship between the two countries is torn by tension and suspicion. From the Indian side, there is also the belief that the Pakistani establishment is somewhat economical with the truth when it comes to charges about carrying out acts of violence on Indian territory, be it Kashmir or Mumbai. Many of these issues are bound to come up if a meeting takes place between Mr Singh and Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan. While such meetings are important, the nuts and bolts of a dialogue and an understanding will have to be put in place by senior officials from both countries. Here, mandarins from India’s external affairs ministry may have to modify, if not give up, some of their entrenched positions and prejudices. There is another level at which the dialogue needs to be conducted and continued: the non-official channel or what in the jargon has come to be called track-II diplomacy. What cannot be discounted is that between the people of the two countries there exists an incredible amount of goodwill. This could actually serve as the bedrock of Mr Singh’s initiative.