The Pulse

What Can Manmohan Singh Accomplish By Visiting Pakistan?

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Pakistan in March to reignite the Composite Dialogue Process.

What Can Manmohan Singh Accomplish By Visiting Pakistan?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is planning to visit Pakistan sometime in March 2014 to resume the long-stalled composite dialogue between India and Pakistan. The news comes a little over a week after Pakistani Trade Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan met his Indian counterpart Anand Sharma in New Delhi and the two agreed to move forward with warmer trade ties. Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma will pave the path for Singh’s trip to Pakistan when he heads to Lahore in mid-February for an Indian trade show.

The composite dialogue between India and Pakistan was suspended last January after an Indian soldier was beheaded by Pakistani troops–an incident that marked the beginning of a year that was marred by various skirmishes along the troubled India-Pakistan border. A series of ceasefire violations in 2013 ensured that no progress was made on ameliorating bilateral relations. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to improve relations with India prior to his election.

The so-called Composite Dialogue Process between India and Pakistan addresses the entire spectrum of issues inhibiting warmer ties between the two South Asian rivals, including the final status of Kashmir, Siachen, economic cooperation, counter-terrorism cooperation, and general confidence-building measures.

So far, 2014 has set a completely different tone for India-Pakistan relations compared to 2013. Where last year was littered with skirmishes along the Line of Control in Kashmir, this year the two have already broached major trade issues in an amicable bilateral setting. At the very end of 2013, the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both nations met at the Wagah border crossing to consult on military matters as well. Of course, what little progress was made during the brief bilateral consultation on trade issues was undone following an Indian drug bust in Kashmir, which prompted Pakistan to temporarily cease border crossings, but that hasn’t entirely undone the positive momentum underlying bilateral efforts this year. Prime Minister Singh’s resolve to travel to Pakistan in March underscores this trend and will likely be the PM’s last major foreign policy hurrah before his term ends in May after India’s general elections.

The timing of Singh’s visit is somewhat unfortunate given that the Congress Party’s electoral prospects in the general election appear dim. Should a non-Congress Prime Minister rise to the fore, it is likely that India may reevaluate the diplomatic trajectory with Pakistan. For the Congress, Singh’s attempts to forge warmer ties with Pakistan prior to the election could provide a modest electoral boost. The Pakistan issue has remained stagnant during the UPA’s second term in power–particularly after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Should Singh’s visit yield any major breakthroughs in terms of the Composite Dialogue Process, Congress could rake in additional votes–particularly from voters in states bordering Pakistan. Most foreign policy issues tend to have little influence on voters, but the Pakistan issue and its ramifications on Indian security can influence electoral outcomes.