When Zardari and Dr Singh first met...
26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed may become an ugly fly in the soup at the lunch meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday. But senior Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir hopes that the two leaders will focus instead on smaller issues like Siachen, Kori Creek and water.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari still remembers his first meeting with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh that took place in 2008. Within a few days of assuming the presidency on September 9, 2008, Zardari travelled to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. He met Dr Singh on the sidelines of the grand event. But the Indian premier literally shocked the Pakistani president by politely asking the latter in their first ever meeting: "Mr President, would you mind extraditing Dawood Ibrahim to India if it is possible?"
Zardari faced this bombshell with a smile on his face, saying: "My dear sir, I have just replaced a military dictator who ruled Pakistan for eight long years. Let us begin a new relationship by discussing small issues first, like Siachen, Kori Creek, and water before taking up bigger issues." Zardari shared the memories of his first meeting with Dr Singh recently with some of his friends, adding that he had returned to Pakistan contentedly, carrying some new hopes.
Within a few days of that meeting, Zardari hosted a dinner for Pakistani parliamentarians at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad [on September 20, 2008]. He had shifted the venue of the dinner to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's house at the eleventh hour, smelling some conspiracy. His hunch came true when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden truck into Marriott Hotel, killing over 50 people. The whole world watched the fire and flames touching the skies of Islamabad that evening.
The then director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan's external intelligence agency), Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, was immediately replaced by Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha shortly after the Marriott Hotel bombing.
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Image: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh line up for a family photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Yekaterinburg, June 16, 2009
26/11 set the clock back on Indo-Pak ties
Within two months of the Marriott bombing, India's commercial capital (Mumbai) had to experience the audacious 26/11 terrorist attacks. The whole world watched fire and flames touching the skies of Mumbai.
The only surviving attacker who was captured alive -- Ajmal Kasab -- eventually turned out to be a Pakistani national, who was allegedly dispatched by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba led by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. Subsequently, the small goodwill created by the Pakistani president and the Indian premier in their first meeting had gone with the wind.
The two leaders are meeting again after a long break, in New Delhi on Sunday. Many in Pakistan know that Zardari is actually visiting India to pay obeisance at the dargah of the great Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. But the media on both sides of the border as well as some politicians are overestimating Zardari's visit. The prime reason for this hype is the scheduled lunch between Dr Singh and Zardari.
Image: Mumbai's iconic Taj Mahal Hotel during the 26/11 terror attacks
Pak opposition, religious parties demand Zardari cancel India visit
Pakistan's opposition leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has already bitterly criticised Zardari's visit to India. Many religious parties too have demanded that Zardari cancel his Indian visit after the recent bounty announced by the United States for Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.
In Mumbai, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray has warned Zardari in a statement to think twice before coming to Ajmer because the former dictator (Pervez) Musharraf 'had to lose power after visiting the same place'.
But it seems that Zardari is not ready to listen to people like Thackeray, recalling that his late wife Benazir Bhutto had visited Ajmer in 2003 and prayed for his release from jail. He had visited Ajmer upon his release along with Benazir in April 2005. He is going to Ajmer once again after his recent fifth address to the joint session of both the houses of Pakistan's parliament.
During his Ajmer yatra, he may pray for the health of his loving daughter Asifa and also for the success of the Pakistan People's Party in the general elections scheduled for the first quarters of 2013. The president has told his close aides that his Ajmer trip was purely a private visit. But when Dr Singh learnt of it, he invited Zardari over for lunch just out of courtesy, and he accepted the invitation, that's all. But the Pakistan president added that he was ready to discuss anything with the premier during his India visit.
Image: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari will visit the Ajmer dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti after lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi
Zardari may mention Lt Col Purohit if India brings up Saeed
Zardari's visit to India a few days after the US $ 10-million bounty announcement for Saeed has rightly intrigued the Pakistan government. It believes that the US move was meant to pressurise Islamabad through India in a bid to ensure the restoration of the suspended North Atlantic Treaty Organisation supply route.
But the US move seems to have backfired, since the Pakistani foreign office has already turned down the US demand, seeking credible and actionable evidence to proceed against Saeed in a court of law. Now Dr Singh is also under pressure o raise the issue of Saeed with Zardari during the latter's India visit.
Therefore, Saeed may become an ugly fly in the soup at the lunch meeting between the two leaders because Zardari is expected to defend Pakistan's stance. He is expected to tell Dr Singh that the charges levelled against Saeed have not been proved in Pakistani courts where he was bailed out.
He can also explain that the Pakistani courts are giving a tough time not only to his prime minister Gilani but also to the powerful intelligence agencies of the country and if someone will provide credible evidence to the courts, Saeed will not be spared.
Zardari had been advised by the foreign office that in case the Indian premier raises the issue of Saeed, he can ask him to first hold the trail of Lt Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit for his involvement in the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombings that left 68 people, mostly Pakistanis, dead.
Image: Hafiz Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and founder of Lashkar-e-Tayiba, is the mastermind behind the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai
Can cricket unite what politics divides?
But one hopes that sanity prevails and no ugly fly spoils the lunch between the two leaders. Insiders insist that the Zardari-Manmohan lunch meeting should not be overestimated and over-projected. They say the meeting can only serve as a window of new opportunities for the two countries. The two leaders must focus on smaller issues like Siachen, Kori Creek and water.
The meeting is taking place at a time when Pakistan is prepared to announce the Most Favoured Nation status to India by December 2012. But a much bigger confidence-building measure could be the resumption of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan. Let us start playing cricket with each other in India and Pakistan and not in a third country.
Zardari can ask Dr Singh to send his cricket team to Pakistan in the coming winter and invite him too so that both the leaders can watch the match together.
Hamid Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist. He recently spoke on India-Pakistan relations in the British House of Commons
Image: Indian and Pakistan fans wave their flags during a cricket match in Mohali
Photographs: Getty Images