On his first day as prime minister of India Tuesday, Narendra Modi held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Monday was the first time since the end of British colonialism in 1947 that the prime minister of one of the states attended the swearing-in of the other. Top diplomats will soon be meeting to resume peace talks between the two nuclear-armed rivals, whose outstanding disputes include the status of the Kashmir region and culpability for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
It’s been suggested that Mr. Modi, whose Hindu nationalist BJP party is viewed with suspicion in Pakistan and has opposed reconciliation with India’s predominantly Muslim neighbor in the past, could be a kind of Nixon-in-China figure, with his past as a hardliner giving him more room to negotiate with Pakistan. The last time there was major progress in peace talks between the two countries was in the late 1990s, when Mr. Sharif was in power at the same time as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last member of the BJP to hold the office.
But before reading too much into Tuesday’s events or giving Mr. Modi too much credit, it’s worth noting that, on the economic front at least, a thaw between the two rivals has been underway for some time.
While the level of trade between the two countries has long been pitifully low, it increased ninefold to $2.7 billion between 2004 and 2011. India has loosened its visa restrictions on Pakistani travelers. Pakistan is likely to soon grant India “most favored nation” status, and has eliminated the “negative list” — a group of sensitive items whose trade is restricted (including such highly dangerous goods such as chickens and badminton shuttlecocks).
The resumption of high-level peace talks is rightly viewed as a breakthrough, but regular secretary-level talks on trade have been held for a while now.
Of course, more trade doesn’t guarantee cordial relations. Just look at Russia and the European Union, or Venezuela and the United States. Even if the two leaders are entirely sincere in their desire for a rapprochement, Mr. Modi still has hardliners in the BJP to string along and Mr. Sharif has Pakistan’s powerful and India-phobic military establishment to deal with. The situation on the border in Kashmir remains deadly and volatile, too.
And if, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggests, the Pakistan-based rebel group Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind last week’s attack on an Indian diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, it could inflame tensions again. But at the least, it may now be viewed as bad for business for the situation to get too out of hand.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer for Slate.