Pakistan appears to have decided to accept New Delhi's offer of Foreign Secretary talks after thrashing it out at a meeting of domestic "stakeholders" on Wednesday and may suggest February 25 as the date, but has not said so yet officially.
A cryptic statement from the Foreign Ministry after the meeting said all the participants had "reaffirmed the commitment of the Government of Pakistan to enter into a meaningful and result-oriented composite dialogue with India" for the resolution of all issues between the two countries for the sake of peace in the region.
In an interview to the Jang media group after the meeting, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he would first brief Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani of the consensus that had been reached at the meeting and it would be announced thereafter.
But he also said in the same interview that of the two dates offered by India for talks - February 18 and 25 - Pakistan favoured the later date.
Mr. Qureshi did stress that there was no point having "talks for the sake of talks," that Pakistan wanted a composite dialogue, and that the issues of Kashmir and water had to be included in the talks, but was also clear that placing pre-conditions for the resumption of dialogue would be "counterproductive."
"We do not have too many concerns regarding dates. February 25 is not a bad date, that is if it also suits our Foreign Secretary, and as to where we meet, it is really not that important. What is important is that we start talking. Of course we feel that these talks should be the restart of the composite dialogue and take it up from where we left off," he said.
Mr. Qureshi very firmly pointed out that the way forward was what was good for the region.
"Let us not get caught in 'conditions.' So far there have been no conditions from India. Let us instead look at what is good for peace. Common sense dictates to start talks as quickly as possible. Pakistan has shown political will where all political forces in and out of government agree on engagements with India," he said.
Separately, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told journalists that there was no harm in accepting the Indian offer, as it could lead to the resumption of the composite dialogue process. Kashmir, he said, was the number one issue for Pakistan and would be discussed in the talks.
Wednesday's meeting, held at the Foreign Ministry, was attended by representatives from the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence, aside from officials of all ministries dealing with the set of eight issues that the composite dialogue process covered. Pakistan's envoy to New Delhi Shahid Malik was also present.
In the National Assembly, meanwhile, parliamentarians kept up the pressure on the government by castigating India for "stopping" river waters to Pakistan.
The Indian Indus Waters Commissioner, D. Aranganathan, who was on an inspection of water head works in Pakistan, told journalists in Lahore that the issue was overblown. The two officials signed a memorandum for inspection of barrages on rivers on both sides.
India wants no preconditions for Pakistan talks
Siddharth Varadarajan reports from New Delhi
While India is ready to discuss any issue that Pakistan wishes to raise, it is unwilling to assure Islamabad that the proposed meeting of Foreign Secretaries will quickly lead to resumption of the composite dialogue, senior officials told The Hindu.
As long as the Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement on Wednesday reaffirming the need for the “composite dialogue process” is aimed at its domestic audience, India would have no problem, officials say. Nor are they opposed to the two Foreign Secretaries discussing Pakistan’s desire to resume the composite dialogue. If an assurance about resumption is sought as a pre-condition for the meeting, however, the talks are likely to run into trouble even before they begin. “Opinions in government may be divided on the composite dialogue as a format,” one official acknowledged. “But if they are going to hold a gun to our head and say ‘only now will we talk’, well, that’s not going to work.
Especially not after the aggressive statements made by [Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood] Qureshi that India had been ‘forced back’ to the negotiating table.”
Pakistan’s formal response to the Indian offer of talks is likely to be conveyed to New Delhi on Thursday.
Although the dialogue initiative has been taken at the instance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with quiet backing from Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the government is aware that it is walking on eggshells.
Last month’s decision to propose Foreign Secretary-level talks was never formally discussed in the Cabinet Committee on Security, The Hindu has learned. But in informal consultations, some CCS members like Defence Minister A.K. Antony are known to have expressed reservations about the need for engagement with Pakistan. “There is huge political aversion to the resumption of the composite dialogue right now,” said an official, adding that this was not out of fear of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s predictable opposition but because many in the Congress believe the ‘no to talks’ stand helped the party win the April 2009 elections.
Indian officials also say the time taken by Pakistan to respond to the offer of a meeting of Foreign Secretaries does not augur well for the success of the planned talks. They see this, and the harsh rhetoric of Mr. Qureshi, as evidence that the Pakistani military — which finds the absence of talks with India more useful in rallying public opinion than the prospect of engagement — has established full control over the civilian leadership.