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At Indian Prime Minister's Inauguration, A Historic Pakistani Presence


Now as we just heard, the presence of a Pakistani prime minister at the inauguration of an Indian prime minister is an important symbolic break with the past. To find out how all this is playing in Pakistan, we turn to our correspondent there, Philip Reeves. I asked how much interest Pakistanis are taking in this moment.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, they seem to be taking a lot of interest. The oath-taking ceremony was shown live on a plethora of news channels here. You know, the hostility and rivalry between India and Pakistan - you know, it's defined South Asian politics for nearly 70 years, since the creation of Pakistan. It's cost so many lives and so much money's been spent on nuclear arms and on maintaining huge armies. And even though this visit to India by Nawaz Sharif could come to nothing, a lot of people are watching it closely.

BLOCK: And when you say there's been a lot of debate about this, Phil, what is the tone of that debate? What do Pakistanis think about their prime minister's decision to go to India for this ceremony?

REEVES: Well, if you listen to the discussion here about this visit, it's very clear that Pakistanis do not like Modi at all. He's generally portrayed as a Hindu hardliner, who's opposed to Muslims. People haven't forgotten Modi's failure, as chief minister of Gujurat state, to prevent the mass killing of Muslims and sectarian attacks in 2002. You know, he's not seen as the kind of guy the prime minister of Pakistan should hang out with, in the eyes of some Pakistanis, at any rate. But at the same time, people are aware of the emphasis that Modi places on economic growth. They admit that he has a pragmatic side to them and acknowledge that improved relations could be very beneficial to Pakistan. So on the whole, I'd say there's been a very guarded approval of Sharif's decision to be there.

BLOCK: Guarded approval, but is there - on the other side, are there angry voices saying this is absolutely the wrong message to send?

REEVES: Well, his mainstream political opponents have either spoken in favor of his decision to go. Or at least they haven't attacked him for it. But there has been criticism from the Islamists. And, of course, the view taken by Pakistan's very powerful military intelligence establishment is absolutely critical. They seem to have signed off on this trip. It's difficult to know. But we don't know how far they're willing to go. And this matters because there's been friction between Sharif's civilian government and the military, who, you know, remain a very powerful force - an influential force. But, you know, that's another thing. This country has a lot of serious internal problems. You know, there are insurgencies by the Taliban and Baloch separatists. There's widespread poverty. And the greater focus here these days tends to be on the struggle to survive these threats, rather than on Pakistan's chronic dispute with India.

BLOCK: Now, Phil, as we've heard, the two prime ministers, Sharif and Modi, are to meet tomorrow one-on-one. Are there expectations there, in Pakistan, that there would be significant progress to come out of that meeting?

REEVES: Well, the meeting's only expected to last about half an hour. Obviously, not a lot of time to get into substantive issues. I guess it might lead to an agreement to talk some more. But, you know, Indians and Pakistanis know how fragile all this is. They've seen efforts at mending fences in the past start with hope and then fall apart. I mean, in 2008, for example, there was a dialogue going on between India and Pakistan. And then, a group of militants from Pakistan stormed into Mumbai and killed 161 people and relations went into a very deep freeze. And, you know, there's also a lot to resolve here, from specifics to huge and historic themes. I mean, India wants Pakistan to act against the mass demand of that Mumbai attack. And there's suspicions in Delhi that Pakistani intelligence is still covertly sponsoring Islami militants. And Pakistan's worried about India's role in Afghanistan. And then, above all the core issues, water, of course - the dispute over Kashmir.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad, Pakistan. Philiop, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.