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India, Pakistan set talks ball rolling

Siddharth Varadarajan

Foreign Secretaries to discuss terrorism

— Photo: PTI

THAW IN TIES: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari at a meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Tuesday.

Yekaterinburg: Terrorism was the “primary issue” six months ago when India suspended high-level interaction with Pakistan and remains so today. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh broke the dialogue logjam on Tuesday, meeting President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the SCO summit here and agreeing that their Foreign Secretaries should discuss the T-word so that the two leaders could decide how to take the bilateral relationship forward when they meet again mid-July at the Nonaligned summit in Egypt.

With one eye presumably focused on those back home who might see the resumption of contact with Islamabad as a softening of India’s stand, Dr. Singh began what was meant to be a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Zardari in the full glare of the media which had gathered to capture the ‘photo-op.’ “I am very happy to meet you,” he told the Pakistani President after the two delegations had greeted each other and reporters, including this one, were still in the room clicking away.

“But I must tell you quite frankly that I have come with the limited mandate of discussing how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India.”

The message duly noted by the media, officials from both sides rushed to clear the room, leaving the two principals alone for their private interaction without note takers. “The Prime Minister does not do anything by chance,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu when asked if this departure from protocol was by design or happenstance.

Whatever its impact on domestic public opinion, Dr. Singh’s “public” airing of Indian concerns runs the risk of making Mr. Zardari’s life back home more difficult, though Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi took the awkwardness of the moment in his stride.

Asked whether he felt Dr. Singh’s remarks were acerbic, he told reporters he did not think so. “We all agree that we should condemn terrorism and fight against it, no matter where it comes from,” he said, adding, “Be it from India, Pakistan, Britain or Africa.”

In a statement issued after the meeting, Mr. Zardari’s spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar, said the “stalled peace process [had] got a fresh lease of life.” He omitted any reference to terrorism in describing the mandate of the proposed Foreign Secretary talks but said the Pakistani President had “reiterated the desire of [his] government to cooperate with India in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice.”

Briefing the media about the 40-minute long meeting, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the two leaders reviewed the bilateral relationship which “remains under considerable stress, the primary cause of which is the terrorist attacks on India from Pakistani territory.”

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