With the SAARC summit only a week away, and India and Pakistan still unable to agree on talks about talks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of Thimphu will have the limited but important aim of preventing further deterioration in an already fraught relationship, Indian officials say.

“What we are really looking at is a holding pattern”, a senior official told The Hindu, using the aviation industry phrase for when an aircraft circles around an airport at a fixed altitude awaiting clearance to land. “It is clear that they are not ready to move forward. Nor, quite frankly, are we, until we see some movement on the issues we have raised".

Pakistan wants nothing short of the resumption of the composite dialogue. It has refused to invite Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to make a return visit to Islamabad nearly two months after its foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, came to Delhi, unless India accepts this condition. On its part, India says resumption is not possible till more is done on the terrorism front but is willing to discuss “humanitarian and other issues”. Under the circumstances, said the official, the best Dr. Singh can hope for from his Bhutan meeting with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is to keep alive the idea of engagement, even if Islamabad is not in a position to deliver on terrorism or discuss the possibility of incremental steps forward.

“It’s sad, really, because there are lots of little things that you could do together even now”, the official said. Indian proposals on enhancing cross-LoC trade have not been answered and meetings of business chambers from both sides have not been held. Though the Indian side has not helped matters with its non-tariff barriers, the official said Islamabad’s reluctance to let the chambers meet means solutions to the complaints of Pakistani businessmen cannot be found.

The official mentioned the ongoing visit to India of Pakistan’s population minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan. “We indicated to them that if they wanted, we were ready to build in some political content to her visit. But they were not interested. Our sense is that nobody in their system wants to take the risk of engaging with India”, he said. The official also mentioned Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik’s recent meeting with visiting Indian journalists. “He was willing to brief them on how the trial of 26/11 suspects has progressed. But [Indian high commissioner] Sharad [Sabharwal] has not heard from him about this since September.”

But if the prospect for gains in Thimphu is close to zero, not meeting Mr. Gilani, or meeting him too perfunctorily, could actually damage relations between the two countries, another official said, explaining the Prime Minister’s dilemma. The Pakistani side has a similar assessment of what is at stake. Neither side is looking for a joint statement but some minimum preparation is considered necessary. “Both of us know the drill”, the senior official said. Asked for his assessment, a senior Pakistani diplomat said it was likely that the two foreign secretaries would hurriedly sit down before their principals meet to sketch out the ground rules.

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