Why India-Pakistan friendship still looks a long way off

Andrew North
South Asia correspondent
@NorthAndrewon Twitter

image copyrightAP
image captionThe Sharif-Modi meeting was a "clear signal" that the two countries are willing to resume dialogue

It started with a handshake, followed by gifts for their mothers - a shawl from Narendra Modi and a sari in return from Nawaz Sharif.

Then came warm words between the two prime ministers on social media and in old-fashioned letters.

Is "mother's love" fostering a new relationship between the two rival neighbours, asked one Indian newspaper.?

Even before India's new prime minister took office, some said his staunchly nationalist Hindu support base would make it easier for him to deliver a deal with Pakistan.

But a month since Mr Sharif accepted Mr Modi's invitation to Delhi for his inauguration, the mothers still have a lot of work to do.

Both sides say their diplomats are talking, but they have yet to take the simple next step agreed by the two prime ministers of getting their foreign secretaries together.

The impending start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, almost certainly means a further delay.

And an upbeat Pakistani newspaper report that "back-channel talks" between Islamabad and Delhi were being "revived" was knocked down by both sides.

Of course, it doesn't rule out the possibility that secret talks are under way somewhere.

Whatever the official positions, there's no doubting an appetite for better ties on both sides.

Pakistanis are fascinated by the neighbour most will never be able to visit, asking foreign visitors dangerous questions like: "Whose mangoes taste better - Pakistan's or India's?"

When Delhi's Press Club organised an evening of Pakistani food and music, flying in chefs from Islamabad, the racks of richly-spiced meat on the grill quickly ran out as hundreds of Indian journalists brought their families, equipped with "tiffin" boxes to take away extra supplies.

Good eating probably helped informal discussions last week between Pakistani and Indian officials who met in Thailand.

But their closing statement hardly suggested a breakthrough.

'Not negative'

And the view in Delhi is that there's no need for new talks, secret or not, because, said a spokesman, "there is already a road map we agreed two years ago" focused on the seemingly easier task of boosting economic ties.

It's up to Pakistan to make the next move, the official said, by allowing more goods traffic through the border crossing at Wagah which, he said, would then trigger a reciprocal Indian response.

In Islamabad, views are divided but the Pakistani foreign ministry is trying to put an optimistic gloss on things.

"We're working on Wagah," was how one senior official put it, but described the road map only as "a key part of the discussion" once the foreign secretaries meet.

Pakistan's powerful military establishment - widely reported to have been against Mr Sharif's Delhi visit - is still cautious about the new Modi government next door.

"So far it has not been negative," smiled one security source.

But "we need reciprocal acts from India", he added, tellingly mirroring Indian language, and then emphasised "there can be no compromise on Kashmir" - the chief source of friction between them since independence from Britain.

And new US measures against a Pakistan-based militant group blamed for a recent attack on an Indian mission in Afghanistan are a reminder of another persistent running sore over terrorism.

The close overlaps in culture and even between the Urdu and Hindi languages are a constant reminder that India and Pakistan are siblings. But friendship still looks a long way off.