Siddharth Varadarajan

Another “sidelines” meeting likely in Trinidad

New Delhi: With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likely to have another “sidelines” meeting with the President or the Prime Minister of Pakistan during the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad November-end, India is considering the strategy it should adopt in the interim to make that high-level encounter more meaningful — and less controversial — than the July 16 Sharm el-Sheikh event.

Since Prime Ministers have always driven Pakistan policy and Dr. Singh is an outlier in his own government on the question of engagement with Islamabad, this strategy is being worked out at the highest level, with the Ministry of External Affairs playing only a limited role.

As matters stand, the two Foreign Secretaries are supposed to meet “as often as necessary,” paving the way for the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan to discuss matters during the U.N. General Assembly session later this month.

Under the pre-existing cycle of visits before last November’s terrorist attacks, it is the turn of the Indian Foreign Secretary to visit Islamabad, a point made by the Pakistani side when it extended an invitation to Nirupama Rao. But with the Indian security establishment worried about another attack and concerned about Pakistan’s unwillingness to act decisively against anti-India terrorist groups, New Delhi is in no mood to signal the appearance of ‘normality’ that a visit to Islamabad would convey.

High-level sources confirmed to The Hindu on Monday that Ms. Rao will meet her counterpart, Salman Bashir, only in New York, at most one day before S.M. Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi sit down to take stock of the bilateral relationship.

Asked whether more than one meeting between the Foreign Secretaries might lead to a more fruitful ministerial interaction, an MEA official said that what mattered was the content of the meetings and not their frequency. “Meetings are like punctuation marks,” he said. “Just because you have more punctuation doesn’t mean the paragraph is better.”

Though MEA officials insist that the content of the New York meeting would be limited to a discussion of Pakistan’s actions against terrorism, the actual brief is being worked out by the PMO. Dr. Singh appears keen to identify elements which could push Islamabad to do more on the terror front while also advancing other Indian interests. But officials said progress in the Mumbai probe and trial was a key metric, as was a demonstration of Pakistani willingness to act against those still seeking to target India.

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