The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) is finally under way. After trying for more than twenty years, the nations are finally closing in on a deal that involves all major polluters. Apart from discussions on climate and environment, the world witnessed an up-close encounter between two major rivals in the international arena, India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen getting involved in a brief conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.

Video footage and photographs revealed how Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif were warm and comfortable speaking to each other, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands before sitting down on the sofa for a brief discussion. According to their body language, both appeared to be in a friendly mood with one another. The present diplomatic observers at the summit observed that there was great warmth between the two leaders, despite cancelled talks between the top national security officials from each country earlier this year. The meeting held between them was very brief, and neither side has disclosed what the leaders were discussing. Modi offered a double handshake to Sharif, indicating optimism. Details were not immediately disclosed but government officials described it as a “courtesy meeting.”

This brief meeting is a signal to the world community that heightened tensions between the rival states, cross-border violations, and cancelled talks should be improved. Both states blame one another for promoting terror in the other’s territory. India points the finger at Pakistan for not taking efforts to tackle extremists planning attacks within its territory. Pakistan alleges that India’s spy agency RAW supports terrorist activities in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan. Due to such tensions and accusations, the Indo-Pak cricket ties have worsened. Ever since Modi has come to power, attempts to improve and foster relations between India and Pakistan have failed repeatedly. The two leaders did not talk and face each other during the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) held in New York in September of this year.

COP21 has served as a platform for these two rival leaders to discuss their bilateral issues. The Wall Street Journal stated that “Modi gets upper hand over Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif” because of the Indian leader’s double handshake. Sharif later described that the talk was cordial with Modi and that they had a positive discussion and hope to see a way forward in potentially clearing the air between the two sides. The meeting was completely unplanned and neither the Indian nor Pakistani foreign offices were informed about the meeting.

Earlier this year India and Pakistan were approved of their membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which could serve as a positive platform for both countries to engage with one another. Before next year’s SCO meeting, Modi and Sharif have taken the opportunity to meet one another at COP21. This has spurred sparks at the summit, and though it is said to be an unplanned meeting, personal talk and preparatory work may have encouraged the handshake. In November 2014, Modi and Sharif came face to face in Kathmandu at the SAARC summit, but avoided any bilateral meeting. Even on stage, both avoided eye contact. In Paris, the body language of the two leaders was surprising as it indicated that the conversation could have been more than just a mere political exchange. The Paris meeting has sparked hopes of renewing the dialogue process between the two sides. Pakistan media reported that Sharif stressed on improving bilateral ties with India saying that Pakistan “wanted peace with India with dignity.”

The NDTV, the Indian Express, and the Hindu all call it a “brief surprise meeting between the two leaders, expressing that it may help to ease tensions, including in cricket ties. The Pakistani media warmly welcomed the meeting between the two leaders, and it was held in a “cordial atmosphere” which was seen as a “positive and happy occasion.” The growing idea and need for engagement at the political and official level between India and Pakistan should increase. Since 2014, all initiatives between India and Pakistan have not been healthy. Therefore, engagement during COP21 may contribute to reducing the hyper-tension between both countries. Though, it will be difficult for them to resolve old conflicts,  this handshake may be a way forward for them and can be seen as a positive sign in the international community. Both leaders are expressing a positive desire to engage in mutual cooperation, in bilateral ties, and in peaceful co-existence with neighbors. The handshake at this summit has surely sparked buzz in the international arena. Recently, Sushma Swaraj confirmed that Modi will fly to Pakistan for the next SAARC Summit. The world now anticipates how Modi and Sharif will greet one another at the 2016 SAARC Summit.


Image: Vikas Swarup-MEAIndia, Twitter

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