NEW DELHI // The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, will arrive in India today, for a day trip that has turned from a private visit into another step in the India-Pakistan peace process.
Mr Zardari was initially scheduled to visit only Ajmer, a city in Rajasthan state, to pay his respects at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a 12th century Sufi saint. His first stop now will be New Delhi, where he has been invited to lunch by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Mr Zardari's visit would be the first to India by Pakistan's head of state since General Pervez Musharraf in 2005. Mr Zardari's visit comes after the United States put a US$10 million (Dh36.7m) bounty for the capture of Hafiz Saeed, the head of a charity considered a cover for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Indian authorities suspect Mr Saeed of planning the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 and welcomed the US bounty on Mr Saeed, who is believed to be sheltered by Pakistan's government.
SM Krishna, India's foreign minister, said on Friday that the shadow of Mr Saeed would hang over the meeting.
"No amount of denial would exonerate [Pakistan] unless there is a judicial inquiry into the whole episode, whereby responsibilities can be fixed," Mr Krishna told reporters in Bangalore. "But unfortunately, Pakistan had not thought it proper to investigate" the Mumbai attacks.
Pakistan's foreign office spokesman, Abdul Basit, said no "concrete and maintainable" evidence had been handed over to Pakistan by India, regarding Mr Saeed's involvement in the Mumbai attacks. "India knows well that hearsay cannot substitute for hard evidence. It is only the latter that can withstand judiciary scrutiny."
Nitin Pai, a geopolitics fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a Chennai-based strategic affairs think tank, SAID Mr Saeed's name would "surface in the talks, but pro forma. India knows there's no point in squeezing Zardari".
The personal nature of Mr Zardari's trip would constrict the potential for any meaningful dialogue, Mr Pai said. "There won't be summits, statements and the usual official rigmarole. Some business may be conducted, but again, there's not much that can be achieved."
But in the case of India and Pakistan, no visit by a leader can be entirely devoid of political weight. In Pakistan, Mr Pai said, hardliners would "project [Mr Zardari's visit] as his closeness to the enemy."
Even Mr Zardari's pilgrimage to the shrine at Ajmer has acquired some political overtones.
In an editorial on Wednesday, The Hindu newspaper called for India to free Khalil Chisty, 81, a Pakistani prisoner who was sentenced to life imprisonment in an Ajmer prison for his alleged role in a 1992 murder.
The sentence was handed down, at least partly, because Chisty was from Pakistan and thus merited, according to the judge, "no leniency".
"As Mr Zardari undertakes a pilgrimage to Ajmer … the ailing doctor's imprisonment in the city will be an embarrassing display of the Indian system at its most inhumane," the editorial says.