Good news is hard to come by when talking about the relationship between India and Pakistan. On April 8, seven years after his predecessor’s visit to India, President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Delhi to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, capturing the attention of the media. An informal 40-minute lunch without delegations or an agenda, the meeting was more than just symbolic. The two leaders shared a cordial handshake that overshadowed the strong tensions between their countries, even if for just a moment: India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they separated in the 1947 partitioning of the old British colony, and both sides still feel the scars of the last battles fought in 1971. Old wounds were reopened when India accused Pakistan of masterminding the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The mere fact that the meeting took place is a rare olive branch in an environment that is usually characterized by armed conflict. Zardari and Singh are also both politically weak. The Pakistani leader is facing a very uncertain election next year. If he manages to serve out his mandate, won in an emotional election following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, he will be the first civilian president to do so. Prime Minister Singh also heads a fragile government, with a fragmented coalition. His cabinet has been rocked by persistent scandals and electoral upsets have hurt his political cornerstone, the Congress Party. Both leaders have very little room to maneuver, and the hawks in both countries are still very strong. A die-hard group of army officers, intelligence operatives, and bureaucrats, they resist any attempt at dialogue that will inevitably reduce their power. To make the trip less threatening, Zardari’s visit had a personal element, a pilgrimage to the Muslim temple in Ajmer, 350 km south of the Indian capital.
Both sides made the usual statements after the meeting, which in itself is promising in the face of open hostility. India and Pakistan seek an increase in trade between the two, building on a marginal $3 billion USD traded in 2011. Other areas such as tourism, scientific exchange, and customs and duties, have been affected in the past by a climate that has precluded any reciprocal benefits.
While Zardari and Singh appeared to be satisfied with the encounter, their caution is not unwarranted. An avalanche on the Siachen glacier in Kashmir recently killed more than 100 Pakistani soldiers. The soldiers were stationed in the highest disputed land in the world, where Pakistan and India have been sending troops since 1947, and the tragedy could serve to spur a reduction in military presence to save money, not to mention human lives.
While the two leaders met, another trade mission was taking place elsewhere in India between the Tea Associations of both India and Pakistan. Pakistan will be allowed to double the amount of tea imported from India, currently capped at 24 tons per year. The two countries even dared to imagine a joint production of a new blend using teas from both sides. It may be a marginal collaboration, but the peaceful joint venture holds more promise than the sabre rattling of the hawks. In any case, it will be better to trade tea rather than bullets.