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'Cordial, constructive' talks on day one at Agra

By C. Raja Mohan

AGRA, JULY 15. After a day of intensive talks at the highest political level, India and Pakistan appeared poised tonight to bury the recent bitterness over the Kargil war and renew a wide- ranging engagement that would address all outstanding issues in bilateral relations.

But as the talks went late into the night, there was still some distance to be covered in resolving differences over creative approaches to addressing the core concerns of each other - those of Pakistan on Kashmir and India's on cross-border terrorism.

From all indications, a political disaster has been avoided at Agra and the outcome is likely to exceed the minimalist expectations of the talks between the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Pakistan President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Meeting in the historic city of Agra, a symbol of India's composite culture, the two leaders today sent out strong signals of hope that a new beginning in bilateral relations may be at hand.

Glitches remain

But Mr. Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf - two unlikely interlocutors that India and Pakistan ever put together - have some important glitches to overcome before they are able to proclaim a ``breakthrough'' in bilateral relations at Agra.

That historic breakthrough may yet be elusive. Agra would not be the first time that a fundamental change in bilateral relations appeared so tantalisingly near but remained impossible to grasp. India appears ready to concede a ministerial level-working group that will address the Pakistani demand for a substantive and sustainable negotiation on Jammu and Kashmir. India, in return, wants a similar mechanism on reducing cross- border violence.

The official word from the two delegations today was that there was very significant work in bilateral relations was in progress. But key differences remain to be overcome. It may be up to the two leaders who are meeting again tomorrow morning to clinch an understanding.

The success of the summit was predicated on the prospects for a personal chemistry between the two leaders and an unstructured dialogue between the two of them, which could help break the logjam in bilateral relations. The face-to-face talks between Mr. Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf, originally scheduled for a short while, today lasted more than an hour and a half.

Key issues discussed

The Foreign Office spokeswoman termed the talks ``very cordial and constructive''. Her sentiments had the rare approval of Pakistan's Foreign Office.

Ms. Sushma Swaraj, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, told mediapersons that many key issues figured in the talks. These included Jammu and Kashmir, cross-border terrorism, nuclear and military confidence-building measures, trade and economic cooperation, and the Indian concerns about the prisoners of war in Pakistan.

Gen. Musharraf himself confirmed the upbeat mood, when he spoke to the reporters at the end of his visit to the monument of love, Taj Mahal, this afternoon. The talks were ``fruitful'', the Pakistan President said.

Throughout the day, as the word came that Mr. Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf were making considerable progress, there was speculation within the large media contingent here on the prospects for an ``Agra declaration'' to be issued tomorrow.

PM accepts invitation

The two sides also indicated that Mr. Vajpayee had accepted Gen. Musharraf's invitation to visit Pakistan. The visit is likely to take place before the holy month of Ramzan begins at the year- end. The two leaders might also have an opportunity to meet at the United Nations General Assembly this autumn in New York.

But before all that there are differences on the future dialogue mechanism to be resolved tonight. If that can be managed, Agra could turn out to be a landmark in bilateral relations. If a breakthrough on core political concerns is indeed achieved, it should be possible for the two leaders to announce many other decisions tomorrow on a whole range of issues from nuclear confidence-building measures to the revival of commercial and economic cooperation.

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