So Modi achieved, albeit in reverse order, what appeared to be only a distant aspiration when first articulated by his predecessor – breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore, and dinner back in Delhi. With this spectacular sequence, the region itself has shrunk and its disparate elements brought closer together. It is a notable moment in South Asian affairs and opens a wealth of possibilities for the future.

The most eye-catching part of Modi&’s neighbourhood trip was of course the Lahore visit. Until only the other day Indo-Pak ties were marked by bitter exchanges and accusations, far removed from the visible cordiality the two PMs have now projected. But even in the midst of the hostile altercations of the earlier phase, some signs of change were to be discerned. The long delayed meeting of the NSAs eventually took place, to be followed by the visit to Islamabad of India&’s External Affairs Minister Ms Sushma Swaraj for the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference on Afghanistan; after years of trying to keep India at arm&’s length from Afghanistan, Islamabad now extended an invitation for its participation. Resumption of the suspended talks between the Foreign Secretaries was also announced, so it began to seem that something was happening on the official front.

But what actually happened went well beyond what anyone could have imagined. Modi decided to drop in at Lahore to spend a few minutes with Nawaz Sharif, and with that the Indo-Pak pendulum began to swing the other way; the bitter exchanges were put into abeyance and it was bonhomie all the way. Such abrupt changes in Indo-Pak ties have happened before in the many fluctuations of their relations, and now it is  Modi&’s turn to strive for something beyond the usual expressions of goodwill and friendly intentions.  Modi&’s penchant for the dramatic gesture has been often seen since he took over, and it  was on full display on the Lahore visit, where it served the useful purpose of helping bypass the stultifying bilateral stalemate.

With this gesture, Modi has put his stamp on Indo-Pak ties. Earlier signals like the invitation to  Nawaz Sharif for the inaugural did not have the effect that might have been hoped for, and did not for long staunch the recriminations so characteristic of the relationship. If anything, the public accusations became more heated than ever and a strident media reduced the scope for any conciliatory move from either side. Thus to proceed as Modi has done is to take a bold step, not without risk, as the grumbling among opposition groups has already shown, but it is an initiative that can yield decisive results. And while acknowledging the Indian PM&’s bold leadership, one should also recognize the role of his Pakistani counterpart. Nawaz Sharif has had more than one spell in charge of his country’s government and over the years, despite the internal factors that can come in the way, he has been supportive of the peace process. His ready response to Modi&’s initiative is indicative of his own wishes and intentions.

The international response to the thaw has been favourable. It was not always so and Indo-Pak ties have often fallen foul of the conflicting interests and pressures of great powers. This was especially so in the days of the Cold War when the East-West struggle added unpredictable complications to what was already a difficult and dangerous situation in South Asia. Today, however, there is no powerful external impediment to prevent the two countries from pursuing their chosen course. It may not always be plain sailing, for rivalries within the region have not disappeared, but it is now for the countries themselves to determine what should happen next.

The most disruptive factor to be faced is terrorism. A variety of terrorist groups are active internationally, some of them focused primarily on India, others with a more universal agenda. Pakistani security agencies, including those linked with the army, are long believed to have provided covert support to terror groups active in Kashmir and also in other parts of India. The Mumbai attacks remain an unhealed injury that still demands atonement. In the more positive atmosphere after Modi&’s visit it can be hoped that there could be some progress in dealing with the terrorist threat and a stronger Pakistani effort to meet India&’s concerns after the attacks of the last few years. How to deal with this issue would no doubt be a big test before the interlocutors who are now due to meet in little more than a couple of weeks.

At the talks, Pakistan can be expected to raise the matter of Kashmir. That would, as so often in earlier meetings, aim at underlining its position on the issue though it cannot lead to change on the ground. On Kashmir, the lengthy and painstaking back-channel discussions ordained by the previous regimes in the two countries achieved important results. The outline of an agreement on this most divisive of issues was worked out and while the details have not been announced, enough has been made known by individuals associated with it to give a good idea of what came out of the back channel. Thus it is reported that a future dispensation in Kashmir that met the requirements of both sides was agreed, and this may be reflected in whatever formal agreement emerges hereafter. It would thus be desirable when they meet for the two sides to return to what they had achieved in the back channel, this time in more open discussion that can serve to inform the public and attract its support.

Apart from these central issues, several others may well come under review when talks resume, including territorial ones like Siachen and Sir Creek, and a whole range of economic matters. Transit is another subject awaiting resolution, and, most eagerly anticipated, easing of restrictions on people-to-people contact and cross-border access.  

All these issues are part of the bilateral agenda that was put together when  I K Gujral and  Nawaz Sharif were heading their respective governments. The agenda has endured and remains the appropriate basis for talks, as does the process agreed at that earlier stage, whereby simultaneous meetings between senior officials were to be held on the whole range of subjects, thereby permitting a measure of progress even when some of the issues could not be resolved in a hurry.

Now that talks are to be resumed, it will soon be seen how far and how fast progress can be achieved. Modi&’s imaginative journey and Nawaz Sharif&’s welcoming response have created a mood of real anticipation.