Despite a publicised reiteration of an invitation to Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to visit here for talks with her counterpart Salman Bashir, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry appears to have accepted New Delhi’s proposal for New York as the venue for these talks.

It has been agreed that the two officials will meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly later this month, just ahead of the talks between their Foreign Ministers at the same venue.

The two sets of meetings were decided at the July Sharm-el-Sheikh talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani.

A joint statement issued after the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting said the two officials “should meet as often as necessary and report to the two Foreign Ministers who will be meeting on the sidelines of the coming U.N. General Assembly.”

But with a strong backlash in India to the joint statement, and Dr. Singh’s clarifications that there would be no substantive talks between the two sides until Pakistan acted against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, arranging even a single meeting between the Foreign Secretaries turned into a challenge for the two sides.

India did not respond to the invitation to Ms. Rao. After several statements from Pakistan about the Indian silence, New Delhi proposed that the Foreign Secretaries meet in New York right before the meeting of the Ministers.

As evident from Mr. Bashir’s reiteration of the invitation to Ms. Rao on Friday at a meeting with Indian High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal, Pakistan’s public position is that it still wants the meeting held in Islamabad. If Ms. Rao came here, it would be the first high-level visit from India after the Mumbai attacks; it would also give the talks the air of a substantive India-Pakistan re-engagement.

But Pakistani officials have told the media that this was now an improbable scenario, and that the meeting would be held in New York.

In an indication that Pakistan may be looking to reactivate the backchannel dialogue with India, it appears the government is considering naming the former Foreign Secretary, Riaz Mohammed Khan, to continue the process from where it was left off by the powerful Musharraf regime bureaucrat, Tariq Aziz.

Backchannel negotiations have been an important feature of the engagement since the late 1990s, acquiring heft during the Musharraf regime, when the peace process picked up speed after 2004.

Mr. Aziz held many rounds of secret talks with New Delhi’s backchannel representative Satindar K. Lambah for many years. According to some media reports, the Aziz-Lambah interactions all but arrived at a breakthrough on the Kashmir issue, though the substance of these talks has never been made officially public.

For purposeful talks

The secrecy of the backchannel talks is said to aid more purposeful discussions on sensitive issues.

The backchannel has been in limbo after the exit of the Musharraf regime, and all talk of reviving it went out of the window after the Mumbai attacks.

With the two sides now struggling at public re-engagement, it is not clear how much interest New Delhi has in reactivating the backchannel diplomacy.

Mr. Khan retired in 2008. As the Foreign Secretary in the Musharraf regime, he was closely involved with the peace process. He is seen as a forward-looking diplomat on both sides of the border, and has the acceptability that is a necessary qualification for a backchannel negotiator.

Earlier, it was reported in the Pakistani press that President Asif Ali Zardari wanted his close friend and a former bureaucrat Salman Farooqui to be the backchannel representative. But with his controversial past, Mr. Farooqui was said to be unacceptable to most other key players in Pakistan, including the Army and the Pakistan Muslim League (N).

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