India and Pakistan jointly look to defy traditions. As Narendra Modi sets to take the reins of the country as Prime Minister, he made a bold move and invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to attend the swearing in on May 26. And now, in what is being hailed as a very positive step, Sharif has defied naysayers and hardliners home and agreed to visit India.
Since the attacks in Mumbai on 26/11, the India-Pakistan talks have been fraught by series of differences. Experts have taken positively to both Modi’s and Sharif’s decisions and said that the meeting of the two leaders will launch a new chapter in the bilateral ties.
An important role played in pushing for the meet and promoting strong ties between the two neighbouring and nuclear armed countries has been by its media. While Indian media hailed Modi’s invitation to the SAARC leaders calling it a “foreign policy masterstroke”, the Pakistani media too gave a thumbs-up to the call.
However, the government in Islamabad did not jump at the invitation and took its time to respond. This led to suspicion that the Pakistan government was wary and may not accept the invite.
However, during this time that the Pakistani government took, the Indian media keenly waited for a reaction – all the while hoping for a positive response -- while the Pakistani media did an outstanding job of pursuing, persuading and even tipping off the government about the pros and cons of accepting the invite.
Pakistan’s leading newspaper – The Dawn – was at the forefront of the crucial process of providing a thaw to the relationship between the two nations. In an earlier editorial, The Dawn had said that Modi’s invitation “is an astute diplomatic move and a mixed blessing for the Pakistani prime minister. Its rejection could have been construed as an unfriendly gesture and justification for future Indian belligerence. However, its acceptance, despite past and recent insults hurled at Pakistan, could cast this country in the role of an Indian satrap, more so if other South Asian leaders attend. The occasion could be utilised by Modi to set the bilateral and regional agenda. In any case, peace is not about to break out between Pakistan and India.”
The paper, till the invitation was accepted, took an upbeat stance, urging that the Sharif government should respond in the positive.
On May 25th , The Dawn hailed Sharif’s acceptance to the visit and said in an editorial, “...an opportunity exists again, and by taking a bold decision Mr Sharif has denied an opportunity to the hawks in Indian politics and media to orchestrate a new anti-Pakistan chorus. Adviser Tariq Fatemi may appear overly optimistic when he says the visit could open a new chapter in Pakistan’s relations with India, but let us hope that Mr Modi, too, thinks that way.
Here are two contrasting phenomena: Manmohan Singh didn’t utilise Asif Ali Zardari’s offer; Mr Sharif has accepted Mr Modi’s. This round goes to Pakistan. The ball is now in Mr Modi’s court. He should respond with concrete gestures, the least of which could be a one-to-one meeting with Mr Sharif during his brief stay in the Indian capital.”
All across the Pakistani media, the decision was appreciated even while some papers added a note of caution. The Nation said in an editorial that, “contrary to popular belief, there is a lot of good that could come from this meeting as well”. It said a meeting the two leaders are scheduled to have a day later “will be the perfect opportunity to assess where the new Indian government stands.”
“Modi’s body language and his words will be very informative for our prime minister,” it added. The daily said that although Sharif had made his intentions on improving ties with India no secret, a half-hour meeting was not what he had in mind. This is “why the government took its time in thinking before giving an answer” in the affirmative in response to an invitation from New Delhi to attend Modi’s swearing-in on Monday as India’s new prime minister.
The News International said expectations of improved relations with India after Modi’s landslide victory, “are so low that there is a tendency to overstate the importance of every small action as a symbol of change.”
“Modi’s invitation to Sharif, and Nawaz’s positive response, to attend the new Indian prime minister’s inauguration on Monday are both shrewd gambits made by veteran leaders.”
The Indian invitation “does not in itself mean that Modi is ready to take ties with Pakistan to the next level”, it said. This Pakistani daily said that whether Modi accepts the offer of a return visit may be an early indication. “But events have a way of ruining even the best of intentions, and the future course of relations may be out of the hands of both leaders,” said the editorial.
Thus while a section keenly awaits the turn of the events in Delhi, not many in Pakistan and within its media fold are excited.
On the other hand, the Indian media termed it as a foreign policy masterstroke. The Asian Age called it “a strategically-astute move expected to yield major diplomatic dividends”, adding that the “surprise move… is seen as a masterstroke by Mr Modi to reach out to the immediate neighbourhood”. The Times of India responded with the editorial headline “Neighbourly invite: Incoming Modi government should expeditiously reset stalled regional ties.” The paper described the decision as “a positive signal”, adding that the “relations with India’s neighbours deserve the highest possible emphasis.” It hoped that the incoming BJP government will “adopt a pragmatic approach to foreign policy.”
The Indian Express said the invitation “challenged the entrenched negative perceptions, at home and abroad, about his worldview (but)...his terrific move (shows) he is ready to engage the neighbours without standing on protocol and precedent. Unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Modi, as PM, must travel frequently to the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan. Routinisation of such diplomatic engagement will not solve all of India’s problems with its neighbours.”
Even the US media has highlighted the incumbent meeting of the two leaders as a sign of positive times to come. Most US papers called it a “mutual gesture”, adding “it may mark a turning point for the two countries and the South Asian region.”
Media is an important institution of democracy. Both Indian and Pakistani media have an important role to play as the two nations set out to re-discover peace and healthy relations. This time, they have acted most responsibly. Media of both countries ignored every bitterness and hostility of the past and with optimistic reports, only rekindled hope of an uninterruptible dialogue process. They ceased to be the conflict-stoker and took on the role of peacemakers.
In this scenario, it will be worth to wait and watch the part they play in this sensitive matter in time to come.