Despite demands from various quarters for calling off his India visit, President Asif Ali Zardari was all set to head off to New Delhi on Sunday morning and his entourage has been growing by the day. As of Saturday evening, the entourage was 57-member strong and there remained the possibility of legislators and others with the ‘SAARC sticker' joining him separately as the sticker allows them to enter India without a visa.
The presidential entourage will include his son and chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the former Chairman of the Senate, Farooq Naek; presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar and Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani. For the Foreign Secretary — who had served in India between 1999 and 2003 — this will be a brief return to a country which had expelled him nearly a decade ago for allegedly funding the Hurriyat Conference.
Mr. Zardari will be accompanied by a three-member delegation for the lunch being hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Those included are his son, Mr. Malik and Mr. Jilani.
Three Gulfstream aircraft will ferry the entourage to Delhi from where they will move to Jaipur. In Jaipur, the entourage will switch over to helicopters provided by India. This will be Mr. Zardari's first visit to India as President.
Meanwhile, with Pakistan under pressure to proceed against Jama'at-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, there is apprehension within the country that India will use this high-profile visit to ratchet up the issue. However, the President himself appeared confident that this would not be the dominant subject. Speaking to reporters in Lahore, he said: “My visit is of a religious nature. I do not think Dr. Singh will make me sit and discuss only this issue.”
The JuD had on Friday demanded that Mr. Zardari cancel his India visit and with Saturday morning breaking with news of 117 Pakistani troops going missing in an avalanche in Siachen, the chatterati have been wondering aloud if it would not be better for the President — who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Army — to fly to the avalanche-hit site instead of going on his pilgrimage.
Others, however, expressed the hope that the avalanche on the eve of the visit might push the two countries into making a serious attempt at demilitarising the highest combat zone in the world.
No specific issue on agenda
Sandeep Dikshit reports from New Delhi
But for separate and short statements from Mr. Zardari and Dr. Singh, no concrete outcome is expected nor are specific issues likely to be discussed during the lunch hosted by the Prime Minister on Sunday, according to highly-placed sources.
New Delhi is viewing the visit as one that will spur greater interaction between the leaderships of two countries as they go about repairing their ties after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
India and Pakistan have bucked the international trend of frequent meetings to improve bilateral ties. Most of the high level Indo-Pak interactions have been sporadic and subject to the politics of the time (Mr. Zardari and Dr. Singh last met in 2009) although the pace has picked up over the past year.
An emotional visit
For Mr. Zardari, the visit to the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer is likely to be an emotional return to the place where he last prayed with his wife Benazir Bhutto in 2005 for their safe return to Pakistan and for a win in the elections. Sources close to the Bhutto family said Benazir had promised to return if their wishes were fulfilled. For Mr. Zardari, this would be the last opportunity to honour her wish as he would get busy with the approaching election in Pakistan.
He would also be making a political statement of endorsing the liberal version of sub-continental Islam by praying at the shrine, a gesture that had not gone down well with followers of more rigorous versions of Islam.
The lunch would be a restricted affair, limited to about six persons from each side, and would be preceded by a closed-door meeting between Dr. Singh and Mr. Zardari.