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Opinion: India and Pakistan talk about talks

India and Pakistan can't even agree on a subject, let alone have a productive debate.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, left, shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the 15th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, July 16, 2009. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

NEW YORK — The Feb. 25 meeting of the top diplomats from India and Pakistan will be closely watched even though little is expected from the meeting itself.

Foreign secretaries from South Asia's nuclear-armed rivals are set to meet in New Delhi for the first official talks since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. The attacks, traced back to the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan, prompted the Indian government to break off all official talks with Pakistan until Islamabad dismantled its "infrastructure of terror" and brought those responsible for Mumbai attacks to justice. But in an about-face earlier this month, India reached out to Pakistan to explore a resumption of dialogue.

At best, the Thursday meeting is expected to lay down the framework for future talks between the two countries.

While the talks signal a positive move in this volatile relationship and are infinitely better than not talking, significant hurdles remain. For starters, India and Pakistan fail to agree on what they should talk about: Pakistan would like India to resume the composite dialogue that discusses all outstanding issues between them such as Kashmir, boundary disputes at Sir Creek and Siachen and water-sharing but New Delhi has a single priority — terrorism.

The latest terrorist attack, a day after the announcement of the talks, in a bakery in the western Indian city of Pune makes this discussion ever more urgent in India's view. Indian columnist Siddharth Varadarajan argues that India's strategy of "no talks" hasn't brought it much in the way of results so now New Delhi is hoping to use engagement as a lever. But for this, he writes, India will "have to bring something more to the table. ... In particular, it will have to demonstrate that there are tangible benefits for Islamabad from the meaningful dialogue which would logically follow the restoration of confidence and trust."

Moving beyond the differences over immediate agenda, a sustainable dialogue for peace is also dependent on the domestic situation in both countries. Indian foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan at a recent Asia Society meeting says "public opinion in India on Pakistan can be volatile." Raja Mohan points to the hyper-reaction in India to a July 2009 joint statement between the Indian and the Pakistani prime ministers at the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheik.