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Who is pushing Pakistan, India for talks?

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By Saeed Minhas

ISLAMABAD: Exchange of pleasantries and muted diplomacy between India and Pakistan over thorny issues such as terrorism, water sharing and cross-border infiltrations remained the focus of diplomatic bureaucracy in Islamabad throughout the last week.

The show organised by Interior Minister Rehman Malik in Islamabad raised lots of attention and probing by all diplomats, for the simple reason that a very vocal and critical figure from the Indian government, Home Minister P Chidambaram, was to make an appearance in the SAARC home ministers’ conference in Islamabad.

Positive signs of the meeting have remained, as both Indian diplomats, first Foreign Secretary Nirupuma Rao, and then Home Minister Chidambaram, remained positive during their Pakistani yatra, but avoided raising controversial issues in the media.

Chidambaram, who is not new to Pakistani audience, especially after the shoe-throwing controversy involving a Sikh journalist, was so tight-lipped that he preferred smiling and other evading techniques instead of drawing himself into any controversial topic.

Resultantly, high hopes have emerged for the upcoming meeting between foreign ministers of both countries scheduled in mid-July in Islamabad.

All this was happening in the backdrop of India and Pakistan grappling over issues such as the construction of various dams by New Delhi that have resulted in draught-like situations in many Pakistani rivers, Afghanistan, where Indians are trying to inch their way forward to end Islamabad’s “strategic depth”, Siachen, Sir Creek, civilian nuclear deals, and last but not the least, India vying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

What happened in the past one month or so was that all of a sudden, not only Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but also the visiting Indian home minister and foreign secretary did not create any controversial headlines.

This was the exact question thrown at me during a Japanese reception by one of the western diplomats.

As luck had it, the person standing next to me was none other than a former Pakistani foreign secretary, and his off-the-cuff remark was that since India was caught up in lots of internal problems like the Maoists rebellion, insurgencies in various parts of the country and its venturing into unknown waters of US relations, its leadership seemed to be more cautious now than ever.

Continuing in the same vein, he said whether the leaders of both the countries accepted this or not, it was now an open secret that the Americans and the British were pushing both the countries to forget the past and chalk out goodwill gestures for the two nuclear-armed countries.

“Whether we like it or not, but both [Barack] Obama and [David] Cameron have vested interests in keeping both India and Pakistan engaged in talks for sometime by using the carrot-and-stick policy,” he added.

As more questions poured in from inquisitive diplomats, the former diplomat, who has been involved with various off-the-record talks with India, especially during the Musharraf regime, rebutted the volley of queries by informing European diplomats that although the agenda had been set by the Americans, it certainly could help melt some ice here, provided both countries and their hawkish elements showed some restraint and rationality in their approaches.

Referring to his days of negotiations, he recalled that Manmohan Singh had agreed to Musharraf’s four-tier formula and lots of developments and modalities had also been worked out between the negotiating sides, which consisted of some senior diplomats, journalists, as well as state and non-state representatives.

Opening up of communication channels and talks about giving the illegal trade of over a billion dollars between the two countries some legality were in the final stages when the restlessness of the Americans thwarted not only Musharraf’s journey, but also the fate of these talks.

Since nostalgic views about the last days of Musharraf continued and the European kept listening to the former diplomat’s American-bashing, another query about the role of the Zardari-led government brought the Indo-Pak topic back to limelight.

The former Pakistani diplomat said that since the establishment was of the view that certain bargains might not be harmful to their interests, trade or communication was no more an issue with the Pakistani side.

But, owing to their internal political divides and maybe the dominance of right-wing elements, Indians want to extract all those things that cannot even be negotiated at this point in time.

He said the first small steps, no matter who took them, would help bridge the existing trust deficit, and once that stage was achieved through these muted public exchanges, we could hope to sort out other barbed issues.

Before taking a leave from the westerners, the former diplomat referred back to the US-UK interest in Indo-Pak developments by advising the foreigners that it would be much better if the Americans first declared their exit strategy, so that they could give something to both South Asian rivals to work on.

Because according to him, the Americans have taken Britain on board to push for these talks without any clear agenda and purpose on hand.

However, he hoped that both Indian and Pakistani leaders might use this gifted opportunity to not only work out a strategy of living, but progressing together.

Whether that is an option for the leadership on both sides of the border or not is unclear, but one thing is for sure that Rehman Malik is over the moon for not only providing good company and entertainment to Chidambaram, but also earning praise from all his masters for keeping him quite throughout his stay in Islamabad.

Let’s hope that no matter who is pushing for the talks, they remain on course and gather some momentum for the betterment.

Source: Daily Times\07\05\story_5-7-2010_pg11_13

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