Anatomy of a diplomatic handshake

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Contrary to reports, the hugely publicised handshake between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi at the SAARC summit was preceded by other exchanges of pleasantries

On November 27, the second day of the SAARC summit, Kathmandu newspapers showed a grim looking Nawaz Sharif and a grumpy looking Narendra Modi on their front pages. Both were sitting on the dais, seemingly oblivious to each other, with the Kathmandu Post headline reading: “So close yet so far.” Tensions between India and Pakistan had clouded the SAARC summit with the Kathmandu Declaration also in trouble due to Islamabad expressing reservations over three proposed regional agreements for connectivity and integration: motor vehicles, rail and energy cooperation. Regionalism, bilateralism and sub-regionalism are all enmeshed in a SAARC hostage to the perennial coldness between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Thawing the cold relations became paramount. Contrary to visuals and reports, the hugely publicised long handshake between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi at the end of the concluding session of the summit was actually preceded by at least two other exchanges of pleasantries: the first was in the holding half prior to the inaugural session where leaders arrive in country-alphabetical order. Mr. Modi, having reached before Mr. Sharif, shook his hand the second time after his own inaugural in New Delhi in May this year. At the Dhulikhel retreat they shook hands a second time around, and went unaccompanied by aides for a walk in the woods around Dwarika Shangri La. After that they sat around the same table at lunch. They also met during Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and President Ram Baran Yadav’s banquets. The display of bonhomie was aplenty, but without any public ‘evidence’ other than the November 27 handshake where an animated conversation could be deciphered through lip reading. Elsewhere, cloak and dagger stories were doing the rounds: like for example, miffed by India’s refusal to resume the composite dialogue, Mr. Sharif was prepared to wreck the summit.

Breaking the deadlock

A day before, on November 26, Foreign Ministers hit a cul-de-sac. The Kathmandu Declaration was deadlocked. While India wanted all the three agreements or none, Pakistan blocked all three saying it had to take its four provinces along. The Declaration document was sent to Mr. Koirala who had to do some back-channelling in order to create a level-playing field at Dhulikhel. He told Mr. Modi that he was the regional leader and must act appropriately; otherwise there would be no worthwhile Kathmandu Declaration. The Modi-Sharif walk in the woods broke the ice as did the charmed yellow scarf of Goddess Baglamukhi in Patan that the leaders wore at the retreat. Before the sun set over the majestic Mount Everest visible from Dhulikhel, a compromise had been cobbled together. Both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi had agreed to the electricity cooperation agreement, and with gentle persuasion, Mr. Sharif also agreed to SAARC transport Ministers hammering out an agreement on motor and rail connectivity within three months.

“The takeaways from Kathmandu were images of Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi, transformed from being grim and grumpy at the inaugural session to beaming and blushing at the concluding ceremony”

A visibly relieved Mr. Koirala flew back to Kathmandu to rework the Kathmandu Declaration, which contained at least one agreement on power cooperation. The motor and rail connectivity pacts have been in the works for the last eight years and may soon see the light of day when India-Pakistan tensions relax. It is tragic that yet another opportunity was missed in reviving the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue. India cannot be a great power without tackling outstanding issues with Pakistan and not letting them fester. SAARC fortunes and regional growth are tied to this critical relationship. Not just the coldness between India and Pakistan, but also Islamabad’s efforts to push Beijing, currently an observer on SAARC,

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