Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, who is travelling with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on his visit to Islamabad, reports that both India and Pakistan are cautious about keeping the peace process on track.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not shying away from visiting Pakistan, Foreign Minister S M Krishna said during the joint media interaction held in Islamabad with his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar at the conclusion of the second round of the resumed dialogue process between India and Pakistan.
Will Prime Minister Singh visit Pakistan in 2012 is the question that has dominated Krishna's visit to Islamabad. Even though a new visa agreement is surely a step ahead between the two countries, adding substantially to the peace process when compared to the phase between 2008 and 2010, Dr Singh's proposed visit remained the much-discussed issue.
Importantly, during the visit, India and Pakistan have agreed to allow cross-examination of three Indian witnesses in the 26/11 terror attacks case by Pakistan's judicial commission before an Indian judge in an Indian court.
When asked, at the joint media interaction, to clarify the comment he made earlier that "something worthwhile has to happen" before Dr Singh travels to Pakistan, Krishna said he never wanted to convey the impression that the prime minister's visit is conditional or that it is linked to progress on the issues pending between India and Pakistan.
The external affairs minister said Dr Singh would visit Pakistan at an appropriate time. Instead of "conditions" now, Krishna said the prime minister will visit Pakistan when the right "atmosphere" is created. He reminded reporters that "Dr Manmohan Singh is the mover of the relations to the next level."
But when urged to respond to a query on whether Dr Singh will visit Pakistan this year Krishna, ALMOST, gave the impression that the possibility of the prime minister's visit is very uncertain. Dr Singh's schedule, the external affairs minister pointed out, is fixed well in advance.
According to a source well-versed with the bilateral talks that were held in Islamabad on Saturday, Pakistan is reluctant to give a clear signal that it will do something substantial soon on the issue of bringing to justice the individuals accused of masterminding the 26/11 attacks.
Both sides are treading carefully to avoid mentioning the negative aspects (continuing distrust) and the threats inherent in the peace process (of high expectations), but the fact remains that the 26/11 accused remain a stumbling block to bringing a fundamental change in the relationship.
Dr Singh's visit could change the contours of the bilateral relationship, but the Indian side wants it to happen on more solid grounds, while the Pakistan side is intelligently creating an atmosphere to overlook uncomfortable issues by stating in colourful language how the visit will be a milestone and by praising the prime minister to the skies.
"Surely, when Pakistan is pushing the visit in an extraordinary manner, India seemingly has the upper hand, but the moment will go in vain if India thinks of short- term gain instead of a long-term advantage," a Pakistani diplomat and former high commissioner to India said.
Indian diplomats told Rediff.com that the Pakistan side is a divided lot on the issue of Dr Singh's visit. On one hand, President Asif Ali Zardari wants Dr Singh to visit Pakistan to secure advantage on his home turf as well as in the international arena. At the same time, since he is a weak leader, Zardari is not in position to deliver anything vis-a-vis the 26/11 accused, including Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder Mohammad Saeed, to satisfy India's expectations.
Riaz Khokhar and Aziz Ahmed Khan, both former Pakistan high commissioners to India, while speaking to Rediff.com, agreed that Dr Singh's visit should be arranged as soon as possible.
"Nobody," Khokhar said, "expects the solution of all problems in one visit. Did Zardari think the Kashmir issue will be solved if he visits Delhi? Dr Singh's visit will give the push to the peace process that it deserves."
The issue of the prime minister's visit has undermined the importance of the new visa agreement and other issues. The visa agreement shows that within the framework of stated positions, both sides are trying hard to keep the peace journey on track.
Keeping in mind the popular view in India, Krishna has been showing no sign of relenting pressure on Pakistan on the 26/11 issue.
As Krishna said, during his press conference with Indian journalists, India is ready to leave behind the histories of war, but not a contemporary event like 26/11. The Indian side has said that 26/11 is an issue with a bearing on the future.
At the same time, the Indian side is ready to ignore the fact that in a lengthy speech, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar did not mention the issue of terrorism concerning India. Krishna later pointed out that the joint statement clearly mentions it. As a matter of fact, he said Khar is a signatory to the joint statement which mentions India's concerns on terrorism and 26/11.
The joint statement says, 'The ministers agreed that terrorism poses a continuing threat to peace and security.'
The statement also says, 'The ministers noted the commitment given by Pakistan during the interior/home secretary talks in May 2012 to bring all the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to justice expeditiously in accordance with due process of law.'
During the press conference, an Indian journalist mentioned to Krishna that Pakistan is trying to pit the blast on the Samjhauta Express incident against the 26/11 terror attacks. After the press event, a senior Indian diplomat strongly objected to such an interpretation and told a journalist that the joint statement clearly mentions, 'The ministers noted that during the interior/home secretary talks in May 2012, the Indian side had conveyed that the investigation in the Samjhauta Express blast case is still ongoing and updated information will be shared with the Pakistan authorities, through diplomatic channels, when the investigation is completed.'
On the record and particularly before the cameras, both sides now know how to maintain a fine balance between popular sentiment and the geo-strategic necessity to move forward.
The joint statement puts it rightly, 'Signing of the new visa agreement which liberalises the bilateral visa regime and introduces a number of measures aimed at easing travel of business persons, tourists, pilgrims, elderly and children, thereby facilitating contacts between peoples of the two countries, who should remain at the heart of the relationship between Pakistan and India.'
After a five year hiatus, both sides have reactivated the Pakistan-India Joint Commission, where eight Technical Level Working Groups discussed issues ranging from agriculture to tourism and health.
During Krishna's visit, the Indian side noted that instead of Kashmir, Pakistan is talking more and more about issues like the Siachen Glacier, Sir Creek and improving the implementation of the water treaty.