By Shubha Singh
India and Pakistan have completed two rounds of their “resumed dialogue process” that was reviewed recently by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad. Progress in India-Pakistan relations is measured in small building blocks so the two welcome developments of the ministerial review – a liberalised visa regime and revival of the Joint Commission – make it productive meeting.
A Joint Commission works on the nuts and bolts of a bilateral relationship in areas like agriculture, health, etc. Liberal visas for organised groups and businessmen would make it easier to travel across the border, which, in turn, would help promote trade. An amount of goodwill has been generated between the two sides at completion of this exercise and at the absence of acrimony in the bilateral exchanges.
It is at this moment that there is a particular insistence from the Pakistani side on a favourable response to President Asif Ali Zardari’s invitation to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan. When will Prime Minister Singh visit Pakistan -- this is a question being asked by all shades of opinion, from the top leadership to senators, journalists, lawyers, sundry officials, socialites and the ubiquitous taxi driver in Islamabad and Lahore. In fact, the absence of a prompt acceptance is also beginning to evoke the question: why is he shying away from the visit?
Prime Minister Singh has said that he would like to go to Pakistan at an appropriate time, when something worthwhile can emerge from the visit. Is this then the appropriate time for him to visit Pakistan? Should he go now as there is a genuine and eager anticipation in Pakistan for the visit and not accepting the invitation would lead to sharp disappointment?
On the face of it, India-Pakistan relations are progressing smoothly. External Affairs Minister Krishna has had a “fruitful” visit, as he termed it. Trade ties are increasing and are likely to improve further. However, bilateral visits by the top leaders of India and Pakistan are too rare to be the occasion for merely generating goodwill. They should either consolidate the goodwill already generated between them, or take it forward to a new level through a breakthrough in long-pending issues. Prime Minister Singh has had ample opportunities for meeting Pakistani leaders on the sidelines of various international events.
There is a view in New Delhi that the Prime Minister’s visit would be a good gesture that would create conditions for a further improvement in bilateral relations. The visit would help to reach out and strengthen the sections of Pakistani society that want better ties with India, it is said.
President Zardari had invited Singh to be present for the Guru Nanak jayanti functions and visit his ancestral village of Gah in Punjab. The Pakistani President was in line with his own visit to Delhi while on a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif. But Indian prime ministers do not make official visits keeping a pilgrimage in mind. The Pakistan People’s Party-led government is very keen to have Singh at a time when it is inching towards that singular distinction in Pakistan – of being the first civilian government to complete a full term, despite the depredations of the Pakistani Army and a hyperactive judiciary. But late November, the dates for the visit would be too close to the elections in Pakistan, which are due by March next year.
There is, on the other hand, no movement on the part of the Pakistani government to take action against the perpetuators of the Mumbai terror attacks. The subject has been relegated to joint statements where Pakistan’s assertion that it will take action soon is noted. There is little to suggest that any visible action is likely in the near future. There is at the same time an attempt to create a common narrative of both sides being victims of terrorism, to diminish the effect of the Mumbai attack. This narrative ignores the fact that terrorism in Pakistan is the consequence of its own nurturing and fostering of terrorist elements in its society.
Minister Khar sought to blithely dismiss earlier hurts with the remark that “we will not be held hostage to history”. Fine sounding words spoken with an intensity of spirit by a supremely confident and articulate Foreign Minister, which could not be matched by the stodgy prepared text of her Indian counterpart. But the words have varying implications for both India and Pakistan. Is either side willing to forget or even show flexibility on issues like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, terrorism and the latest one Islamabad is seeking to add to the list – the sharing of the Indus waters?
Islamabad’s diplomatic space is constricted with its deteriorating relations with America. It is striving to remove the acrimony in its ties with India and is displaying a readiness to normalise ties. In a change of policy, it is ready to put aside contentious issues and seek to improve relations in other areas. There is growing realisation in Pakistan that the terrorist-haven tag is sticking to it. The Pakistan army is also tacitly backing the improvement in trade as it readjusts to its new equation with the U.S.
There has been some headway in the bilateral ties. But the trust deficit has not really reduced or the two establishments would have agreed to the long-pending demand for easing visa restrictions for journalists. Additionally, Indians could have been allowed to watch Pakistani television channels in their homes.
India-Pakistan relations are not like any other bilateral relations. High-level visits create bonhomie, but bonhomie by itself is ephemeral. It dissipates rapidly, maybe even before new agreements can be arrived at. There would be better opportunities and timing for a prime ministerial visit from India as the bilateral relationship gets set in a deeper grove in the future.
(Shubha Singh is a veteran journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com)