Did the re-enactment of the walk by their predecessors 38 years ago break the ice between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani?
Then, as now, India-Pakistan relations were in a deadlock when Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto decided to join his counterpart Indira Gandhi walking alone in the gardens of the hill town of Shimla in the Himalayan ranges. They talked freely and what emerged (after another round of a late night meeting sans aides) was an unexpected agreement, termed as a “diplomatic miracle'' in Fatima Bhutto's recently released book “Songs of Blood and Sword.”
There is no mention of the walk in Katherine Frank's biography “The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi,” but the book does have a photo of them walking together at a garden in Shimla. The photograph was captioned: “Indira and the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto looking friendlier than they actually were, during the S[h]imla summit conference.''
While history records another walk by Jawaharlal Nehru and Ayub Khan in the sixties, it is not known whether that led to a breakthrough.
The venue this time was another hill station in the Himalayan ranges, but the Wednesday afternoon post-lunch walk by Dr. Singh and Mr. Gilani was at the urging of other heads of government attending the SAARC summit. On Thursday, the two leaders met without aides for over an hour and agreed to break the logjam in bilateral ties.
“Insisted by the leaders of [South Asian] delegations, both the Prime Ministers walked together in the SAARC Village and exchanged views. They strolled for sometime before returning to their respective villas,'' a SAARC press statement said.
In fact both at the summit inaugural and outside the venue, the other six SAARC leaders had expressed their unhappiness over the Indo-Pakistan dispute overshadowing the Sixteenth Summit of an organisation that is in its 25th year of existence but had little tangible to show as compared to similar blocs in South East Asia and East Asia. The media obsession with the Indo-Pakistan talks in fact led to the cancellation of a news conference on the first day's deliberations and also pushed into the background the declaration that came at the end of the SAARC summit on Thursday.
Dr. Singh set the ball rolling for an amiable atmosphere during an informal lunch among the eight SAARC leaders by revealing that Mr. Gilani's forefathers had taken part in the construction of the revered Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Sikhs were aware of this contribution and for that reason looked at the Pakistani Prime Minister with “respect.'' As a result, Mr. Gilani, who is also a spiritual leader, had a vast following in India among people of different faiths, revealed Dr. Singh.