x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lunch meeting provides food for thought on India-Pakistan ties

Asif Ali Zardari is the first Pakistani head of state to visit India in seven years - a sign of warming relations between the countries.

The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, waves as he visits the Ajmer Sharif, a Sufi shrine, during his visit to India yesterday.
The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, waves as he visits the Ajmer Sharif, a Sufi shrine, during his visit to India yesterday.

NEW DELHI // The leaders of India and Pakistan met over lunch in New Delhi yesterday - the first visit by a Pakistani head of state in seven years.

It was a sign of warming relations between the countries, which have been enemies since their creation in 1947. Pakistan has promised to confer most favoured nation status on India, which would lower tariffs and increase import quotas for Indian goods.

Both Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, and India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, have fostered peace talks between their countries, which have fought three wars in their 65-year history as nations.

Mr Zardari visited New Delhi en route to Ajmer in Rajasthan, home to the shrine of the 12th century Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti.

This was Mr Zardari's second visit to Ajmer. In 2005, he and his wife, then premier Benazir Bhutto, offered prayers at the shrine.

Ms Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 in Rawalpindi, in Pakistan during a political rally.

Following the lunch, at which the leaders dined on goshtaba, a rich meatball curry from the disputed region of Kashmir, and dosas, a savoury crepe from South India. both gave brief statements without revealing details of what was discussed.

"Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal," said Mr Singh. "That's our common desire. We have a number of issues and we are willing to find tactical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues and that's the message that President Zardari and I would wish to convey."

Mr Zardari invited Mr Singh to Pakistan.

"We've had some fruitful bilateral talks together," Mr Zardari said. "India and Pakistan are neighbours. We can, we would, like to have better relations with India. We've spoken on all topics that we could have spoken about and we're hoping to meet on Pakistan's soil very soon."

Mr Singh promised to come at a "convenient time", hinting perhaps at the criticism he might face from the opposition, as Indian politics heats up ahead of general elections in 2014.

The briefness of the statements "really goes to show that there is not much happening", said Sushant K Singh, editor of Pragati, a security a journal.

"I don't think Zardari is able to talk about many issues because he isn't really in a position to deliver," said Mr Singh. "On both sides, whether it is the civilian president there, or the prime minister here, they don't have the kind of political capital to take any kind of risk."

Both governments are increasingly unpopular - India's over allegations of graft incompetency and Pakistan's over corruption claims, its closeness with the US and a rift with the military.

"Elections are around the corner in Pakistan and a year later in India, so a major breakthrough is unlikely," said Mr Singh. "If nobody takes those big risks, there isn't that much that can be achieved."

The foreign secretaries of the two countries also held a press briefing, but were equally vague on the topics discussed by the leaders, except to say counter-terrorism was a topic.

Last week, the US government offered a US$10 million (Dh36.7m) bounty for Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, a Pakistani Islamist blamed by India for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai and 2001 raid on the Indian parliament that almost triggered nuclear war.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae