The one-on-one talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari at the former’s official residence in New Delhi on Sunday were highly symbolic. Like a slow-moving glacier, the politics of Pakistan seems to be changing. Despite the fact that no big ticket announcement was made by either of the two leaders after their talks, there are a few pointers suggesting that relations between the two nuclear-armed adversaries are changing for the better.
For the first time, Pakistan conveyed its keenness on emulating the China-India bilateral relations model in its ties with India wherein the two sides press on and put contentious issues on the backburner.
As a result, the Singh-Zardari talks culminated in the promise of a visa relaxation agreement facilitating greater people-to-people and business-to-business contacts to be signed during home secretary talks expected to be held later this month. For Pakistan, which until the Gen. Pervez Musharraf era kept on playing the broken record of “Kashmir first, trade later,” this will be a major confidence building measure.
The two leaders have also agreed to sign the much-awaited Sir Creek agreement regarding a dispute about the maritime boundary in the marshy region of Kutch. If Indo-Pakistan relations continue to follow this kind of upward trajectory, it may be done as soon as later this year when the Indian prime minister is expected to undertake an official visit to Pakistan. The draft agreement on Sir Creek has reportedly been ready for years, but the two sides could never muster the political will to sign it. Coupled with the recent advancement made by the two neighbors on improving trade ties and Pakistan’s decision to grant Most Favored Nation status to India for trade, the visit has resulted in steady improvement of overall bilateral ties.
Further evidence of increased bonhomie between India and Pakistan was unveiled hours before Zardari landed on Indian soil. India’s director general of military operations (DGMO) talked to his Pakistani counterpart at 7am on Sunday and offered help to rescue over 100 Pakistani soldiers who were buried in an avalanche in Siachen on Saturday. The Pakistani DGMO thanked his Indian counterpart for the offer and told him that he would revert to him if help was required.
During the 40-minute discussion, the two leaders had “a friendly and constructive engagement” and the discussion covered “all aspects” of India and Pakistan bilateral ties, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said at a press conference after the talks. Both leaders noted that there was steady progress in the Indo-Pakistan dialogue. Mathai said Singh had expressed appreciation that Pakistan has moved forward on trade-related issues.
On the most contentious aspect of India-Pakistan ties – the terror issue – Singh underlined the urgent need for Pakistan to bring to book the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Singh made a specific reference to Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the alleged mastermind of the 26/11 attacks, who now has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Zardari said what he presumably had been briefed by his Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to say: that the issue needs to be discussed at length between the two sides.
Singh accepted Zardari’s invitation to visit Pakistan and added that he would be “happy to visit Pakistan at a mutually convenient time.” Singh said he and Zardari had “constructive talks,” and the two sides were “willing to find practical, pragmatic solutions on all issues,” NDTV reported. He said it was a “common wish that ties should normalize between the two countries.” Singh said many issues were discussed, and that he was satisfied with the outcome. For his part, Zardari said Pakistan would like to have better relations with India and added that he hoped to meet Singh soon on Pakistani soil.
While Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi attended the lunch, Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi skipped the event. She reportedly didn’t give any reason for her inability to attend.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who also attended the lunch, held a brief, informal and unscheduled meeting with his Indian counterpart P. Chidambaram. Chidambaram was not in town until the previous day and had been directed by Singh to be present. Malik described his meeting with Chidambaram as “a very fruitful visit with good meetings…The visit will be a milestone for greater understanding.”
From the Indian perspective, the biggest hurdle in normalization of India-Pakistan relations is Pakistan’s continued apathy toward New Delhi’s concerns on the terror issue, particularly Islamabad’s attitude over Saeed. Still, one positive point must not be lost sight of in all this: since 26/11, there hasn’t been a single terror incident that has been traced by India directly to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.