( Written at the request of the “Economic Times” of New Delhi )
Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s decision to invite President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani of Pakistan to Mohali on March 30 to watch the India-Pakistan World Cup cricket semi-final appears to have been taken on the spur of the moment. It is meant to be a gesture to impart some warmth to the bilateral relations and to create a feel-good atmosphere as officials of the two countries resume their discussions on various bilateral issues after a long gap caused by the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai and the failure of the visit of our Foreign Minister S.M.Krishna to Islamabad in July to break the deadlock on the road map to resume the bilateral dialogue process.
Only Gilani has accepted the invitation after long discussions with Zardari and possibly also with Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who is closely consulted by the political leadership before taking any important decision on relations with India.
An idea of the likely entourage that would accompany Gilani should indicate as to whether this would be a purely courtesy visit to be present at the match, or whether the two Prime Ministers would hold detailed discussions on bilateral relations in the margins of the cricket match. There is bound to be some bilateral discussions, but how substantial they would be is yet to be seen.
In taking the initiative, the Prime Minister seems to have taken care not to project it as a significant diplomatic initiative or as a new exercise in summitry.
Nobody can find fault with the Prime Minister for inviting Gilani. Indo-Pakistan relations have got into a rut. Only a meeting at the top level can give them the badly-needed push forward.
Unless the leaderships of the two countries agree on an over-all vision for the future, individual issues such as the Pakistani support to terrorism, its claim to Jammu & Kashmir etc will continue to prove intractable.
The time has come to agree on a shared vision for the future. Discussions on a vision statement can be held only at the level of the leaders of the two countries. Neither senior bureaucrats nor Ministers holding different portfolios would be able to prepare such a vision statement in the absence of appropriate guidelines from the political leadership.
One does not know whether the Pakistan Army would want such a vision statement and whether it would agree to its political leadership holding talks with its Indian counterpart on such a statement instead of focusing on solving the individual issues.
As part of this exercise, initially it would be necessary to convince the political leadership of Pakistan on the likely benefits of such a vision statement. Once they are convinced and are able to persuade the Army not to oppose such a statement, the details could be worked out by senior bureaucrats.
For this purpose, it would be necessary for the Prime Ministers of the two countries to hold more than one meeting. Our Prime Minister should use his forthcoming meeting with Gilani as the starting point of this exercise to agree on a common vision---- instead of getting involved in discussions on individual issues. Discussions on those issues can go on separately at the level of the bureaucrats as per the road map already agreed upon.
Since former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Islamabad for the SAARC summit in January 2004, our Prime Minister has not been to Pakistan. The visit of Gilani to India for the Mohali match should be followed up by a bilateral visit by our Prime Minister to Islamabad to continue the discussions on the vision statement. Such exchanges of visits at the top level help in imparting the required momentum to bilateral relations.
We had seen how Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 started the forward movement in our relations with China. Since then, the leaders of India and China have been regularly exchanging visits and discussing the over-all improvement in bilateral ties despite the persistence of differences on the border issue.
Regular exchanges of bilateral visits by the leaders of India and Pakistan despite continuing differences on individual issues could prove equally beneficial in removing road-blocks in the way of better relations between the two countries.
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Research & Analysis Wing, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi )