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Pakistan caught off-guard, but feels the ice has melted

Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: The Manmohan-Zardari encounter in Yekatrinberg was not quite the opening to the re-engagement with India that Pakistan had expected, and it has left many somewhat stunned and disappointed.

But observers also said they were hopeful it had broken the ice for an eventual resumption of the peace process, with calls for a new model of talks between the two countries instead of a return to the composite dialogue, seen in Pakistan as already jaded by the time of the Mumbai attacks.

In the run-up to the meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, Pakistan repeatedly called for a resumption of the composite dialogue process. In response to Indian demands for action first against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan was firm that it would not agree to pre-conditions for talks.

When it was confirmed that the two leaders would meet in Russia, there was a thinking here that India, under pressure from the Americans, had finally come round to Pakistan’s view that terrorism is a regional and global issue, and that both countries needed to get back to the talking table so that they could tackle terrorism together.

‘Positive development’

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caught not just Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, but most Pakistanis off guard, with the on-camera remark that his “limited mandate [was to discuss] how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India.”

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a local television channel that the meeting was “a positive development in itself.” But Foreign Ministry officials said privately that Dr. Singh’s remark was “something new” from New Delhi, and that while India had returned to talks as demanded by Pakistan, it was doing so “without grace.”

Several journalists told this correspondent that the “public slight” was not something they had expected from someone like Dr. Singh, who is seen here, as elsewhere, as a leader with a “soft and pleasing personality.”

Some said it was “rude” of Dr. Singh to have told off the Pakistan president in front of the cameras, and in fact, the headline on Wednesday in at least one newspaper, The News, was: “Singh surprises with rude public remark.”

Unfair to Zardari

A senior journalist with the newspaper said Dr. Singh’s conduct was unfair to Mr. Zardari, who at times had been seen as waging a lone battle for better relations with India against the hardliners and hawks of the traditional Pakistani establishment.

“After this humiliation, that lot in the Foreign Office which has identical views as the Pakistan Army — that lot which is thinking we’ve got nothing to lose if we don’t talk, let India come back to the table when it wants to — they are bound to get strengthened,” the journalist said.

Ershad Mahmud, a columnist working for the Urdu daily Aaj Kal, said that after this brush, even Mr. Zardari, who once advocated the need for liberalism in building ties with India, “must be a changed man.”

But the encounter has not been written off entirely as a bad dream. “It has not reversed the current trust deficit, but it has successfully revitalised the high-level contacts between the two countries which can lead to a resumption of the composite dialogue process,” Mr. Mahmud said.

Revival of peace process

Talat Masood, who heads the Pakistan chapter of the conflict resolution group Pugwash, also expressed optimism that “hopefully, it has at least melted the ice and the stalemate and will lead to the revival of the peace process subsequently.”

Lt. General (retd.) Masood said it was obvious Dr. Singh was playing to international and Indian audiences. “And maybe this was the price he wanted Pakistan to pay for the resumption of talks, a blunt statement like this, in order to be able to tell people back home that he is not going soft on Pakistan. It was also to put pressure on Pakistan.”

But, he said, the meeting had definitely paved the way for re-engagement, even if it was not immediately.

According to the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan, the Foreign Office said after the talks that the two leaders did discuss the question of resuming the composite dialogue. “Pakistan believes that the resumption of composite dialogue, and addressing seriously and with sincerity, a range of issues, is the only way forward.” And Mr. Zardari also made a pitch for reactivating the joint anti-terror mechanism.

There is also a view doing the rounds that the composite dialogue process has run out of steam, solved none of the contentious issues between the two countries and therefore, must be replaced with a fresh model. In an editorial, the Daily Times called for “a new dialogue, the old one having run its course and brought no change. It should be based on the absolute interdiction of war between the two nuclear states, overt or covert.”

New approach

An identical view was voiced by Lt. General Masood. “We will need something better than the composite dialogue process when we start talking again. We need to take a fresh look at the peace process, we need to have a new approach to our relationship,” said Lt. General Masood.

After strengthening his mandate in the last election, Dr. Singh should have the confidence to take a “bold new approach” to relations with Pakistan, the retired general said. “He did not display this confidence yesterday [on Tuesday]. But we must put the past behind. We’ve had an acrimonious past, we’ve been unfair to each other but there’s too much at stake and it is in our interests to optimise our relationship.”

Related stories:
  • “Fresh lease of life” for peace process
  • Manmohan Singh, Zardari agree India-Pakistan potential untapped
  • India, Pakistan set talks ball rolling
  • Manmohan, Zardari set to break the ice

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