Siddharth Varadarajan

Manmohan to meet Gilani on the sidelines of Nonaligned summit on July 16

Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries to meet on July 14

New Delhi: As the principal strategist behind recent moves India and Pakistan have made to restore some normality in their bilateral relationship, it is with a sense of satisfaction that Manmohan Singh begins a four-day visit to Paris and Sharm-el-Shaikh whose highlight will be a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Nonaligned summit on July 16.

The Prime Minister’s search for a new Islamabad strategy began immediately after the elections. Senior officials familiar with his thinking said Dr. Singh sought an approach that would generate both increased incentives for Pakistan to deliver on its commitment to fight anti-India terror as well as greater opportunities for India to press ahead with those areas of the bilateral process which generate mutual equity.

Along the way, the Prime Minister had to join battle with sceptics within, many of whom warned against the ‘premature’ engagement of Islamabad, as well as hardliners in Pakistan who are still not reconciled to the fact that radical extremism and terrorism pose a greater existential threat to the future of the country than India.

And then there was a third obstacle: the accident-prone nature of the relationship. By happenstance or design, the Lahore High Court freed Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed just when the Prime Minister had begun the internal process of making a case for reviving the peace process. And in Yekaterinburg, where Dr. Singh met with President Asif Ali Zardari, the Prime Minister’s inadvertent remarks before the media robbed that encounter of its potential benefits even before it started. The now famous statement about his mandate being limited to discussing terrorism was drafted by National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and was meant to be delivered in the presence of the two full delegations before the two leaders began their one-on-one. As soon as everyone was seated, the Prime Minister began speaking. But he didn’t notice the media was still in the room.

Fortunately, six decades of hostility have taught both sides to take such incidents in their stride. And they began a series of quiet official discussions to see if the minimum groundwork for a successful meeting in Sharm-el-Shaikh could be laid. The Indian military attaches in Islamabad met with the ISI’s powerful chief, Lt. General Shujaa Pasha. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi Shahid Malik worked hard to convey India’s expectation of tangible, written evidence of progress in the Mumbai incident. Having spelt out their bottom line, Indian officials sat back and waited. First came the filing of an appeal against Saeed’s release. And on Saturday, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik went public with the perfectly timed decision of his government to press ahead with the trial of several LeT men for their role in the Mumbai case. On the same day, Prime Minister Singh, who had privately told journalists his Yekaterinburg remarks had been mistimed, publicly stated that he had not intended to snub Mr. Zardari.

When the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries meet on July 14, they will review these matters and report back to their principals. But where Dr. Singh has demonstrated a willingness to overrule sections of the intelligence and foreign policy establishment in pursuit of a fresh approach, the Pakistani political leadership does not enjoy the same freedom. For that reason, the immediate resumption of the composite dialogue is not on the cards. The most likely outcome of Sharm-el-Shaikh is the two Foreign Secretaries being tasked with reviewing the overall structure of bilateral engagement.

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