The World

Peacemaker Modi?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as they shake hands during a meeting in New Delhi on May 27, 2014.

Photo by RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

On his first day in office, newly sworn-in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It 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 Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata 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 for India in Pakistan, with his past as a hard-liner giving him more room to negotiate. The last time there was major progress is peace talks between the two countries was in the late 1990s, when 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 today’s events, or giving 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, which share an 1,800-mile border, has long been pitifully low, it increased ninefold to $2.7 billion in 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 as chickens and badmitton 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 EU, or Venezuela and the United States. Even if the two leaders are entirely sincere in their desire for a rapprochement, Modi still has hard-liners in the BJP to string along and Sharif has Pakistan’s powerful and India-phobic military establishment to deal with. And the situation on the border in Kashmir remains deadly and volatile.

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 very least, it may now be viewed as bad for business for the situation to get too out of hand.