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India flavour of the month in Pakistan

Sheela Bhatt in Islamabad | January 02, 2004 13:52 IST

Pakistanis in general are euphoric over Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's decision not to cancel his visit to Islamabad for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit beginning January 4.

In fact, the focus is so completely on Vajpayee, and on the possibility of further traction on the Indo-Pak peace front, that SAARC has almost entirely been sidelined.

"The people of Pakistan are waiting to welcome Prime Minister Vajpayee," says Shiraj Raj, activist and organiser of a parallel meet named the South Asia Peoples' Summit. "We feel so relaxed and proud that he didn't cancel his visit in view of the attacks on General Musharraf. Unka aana hi badi baat hai (His arrival alone is enough)."

The Pakistani media has been talking of little else. A senior editor based in Islamabad sums up the prevailing mood when he says the Pakistanis want Vajpayee to pick up the threads of Lahore and move ahead.

"People are happy now that India and Pakistan are talking of peace," says social activist Shabnam Rasheed, adding that there is widespread hope the climax of such efforts comes quickly.

The Pakistan establishment, meanwhile, is working overtime to finalise a response to the latest Confidence Building Measure suggested by India; namely that people be allowed to travel from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, without visa.

This means you can enter PoK with an Indian passport. Such a facility, the Pakistan establishment feels, will in a sense tend to portray that the Kashmir Valley is a part of India. Thus, the Pakistani side would like such movement between the two sides, if and when, to be on the basis of a distinct document, and not just an Indian passport.

Meanwhile, the first flight in two years between New Delhi and Lahore took off 40 minutes late. Before it took off, Pakistan International Airlines discovered it had overbooked, and there were two people with confirmed reservations that it could not accommodate.

To fit in the surplus, officials found two mothers willing to accommodate their children in their laps for the duration of the 45-minute journey.

On landing at the newly built Lahore airport, the passengers were treated like VIPs; immigration and customs clearances took less than 15 minutes to complete. Most passengers were in transit, and took connecting flights to Islamabad.

Islamabad is a city under a security blanket; over 150 police checkpoints have been set up around the city. Security presence is massive and very visible, with over 8,000 paramilitary troops helping the local police.

A three-ring security cover has been thrown around Hotel Serena, owned by Prince Karim Aga Khan, where Vajpayee is scheduled to stay.

It is cold in the Pakistan capital, with temperatures around the 7-8 degree mark. Diplomatic heat, however, is building in anticipation of the Indian PM's visit.

"Vajpayee must confirm a one on one meeting with Musharraf immediately," editorialised the Daily Times on Thursday. "The Pakistanis feel they have bent over backwards to assuage Indian egos and fears and suspicions. They are getting visibly irritated by all this Indian shuffling. Delay in scheduling such a meeting between the two Big Ones could throw a spanner in the formal works scheduled at the start of the summit (various dinners by the foreign ministers, high commissioners, etc), thereby souring the summit irrevocably."

"PM Vajpayee enjoys the image of an intellectual, poet and thinker," says senior journalist Hamid Mir. "Pakistan welcomes him, because he is seen as a person who can strengthen the peace process."

"The business community is extremely hopeful of Indo-Pak talks on January 4-5, because it is quite different from the talks that took place between (former prime minister) Nawaz Sharief and Vajpayee," Mohammad Ilyas, executive director of Siemens in Pakistan, told rediff.com "At that time, the military was not backing the talks. Now the boss of the army will himself be talking to Vajpayee."

India, for now, is definitely the flavour of the month. At Islamabad airport, a member of the airport staff escorting the Indian media asked a lady journalist, 'Are you from India?'

Yes, she said. Whereupon the official said, 'Sahiba, you are a very wise woman. Very wise. Pakistan welcomes you.'

Major (retd) Azeiz ul Aman Zuberi, a resident of Karachi, put it best when he quoted poet Mirza Ghalib: 'Karte hai mohabbat to guzarta hai guman aur (When we, the Pakistanis, love India, your feelings are not the same). "Some different thoughts come to your mind when we express love."

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