Manmohan, Gilani to write a new chapter
Addu, November 10
Neither of the two leaders appeared dressed for the locale. Instead of bush-shirt and slacks, the two leaders were dressed in formals — Manmohan Singh in a bandgalla with a sky-blue turban that matched the colour of the sea nearby and Gilani with a smart dark suit and a spring green tie.
The Foreign Ministers of the two countries, SM Krishna and Hina Rabbani Khar, known for their sartorial style, appeared overdressed too. Rabbani wore a maroon salwar kameez and carried a bright red bag that may have made eyes turn on Oxford Street. But on a beach resort, please!
As the summit began, Gilani turned to Krishna and with a smile asked, “I hope you find our foreign minister more amiable than her predecessor.” The air of bonhomie prevailed even after the delegates, including the two foreign ministers, were shooed out by the two leaders as they sat down for a one-on-one meeting that lasted for half an hour. This was Manmohan Singh and Gilani’s second meeting in 2011, the first being at Mohali during the India-Pakistan cricket World Cup clash in March.
That they had built a good rapport was evident as they walked out cheerily after their discussions to address the waiting media. Flanked by the two foreign ministers, they described the relationship as moving “in a positive direction”. Gilani, who was the first to speak, promised that “the next round of talks would be more constructive, more positive, and will open a new chapter in the history of both the countries.”
Manmohan Singh looked assured and, rather than reading from a prepared text as he usually does, spoke extempore and with gravitas. He began by saying, “I have always regarded Prime Minister Gilani as a man of peace. Every time I have met him in the last three years, this belief has been further strengthened.” Gilani looked pleased as Punch.
Like Gilani, the Indian Prime Minister also referred to opening “a new chapter in the history of the relationship between the two countries”.
Manmohan Singh then set the agenda for the next round of talks stating that, “It should be far more productive, far more result-oriented in bringing the two countries closer to each other than ever before.”
The two Prime Ministers appear to have learnt their lessons from the past well as they spoke with restraint and responsibility that made the dialogue process they had begun convincing. After the 26/11 attacks in 2008, India snapped formal talks with Pakistan. It was only at the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in July 2009 where the two met on the sidelines of the NAM summit that Manmohan Singh decided to take the big leap forward by agreeing to resume the dialogue process.
But the controversial joint statement with an unnecessary reference to India willing to discuss charges that it was involved in Baluchistan saw Manmohan Singh face massive domestic flak. Part of the reason was that Manmohan Singh, flush with success at the polls that saw him get a second term as Prime Minister, had not prepared the Indian public for such a reconciliation with Pakistan.
With the Indian public still angry over Pakistan’s complicity in the 26/11 attacks and its inaction against its perpetrators, the backlash saw Manmohan Singh lose a large amount of political capital. It was only at Thimphu in April 2010 where the two leaders met on the margins of another SAARC summit, did they agree to move forward again. But a meeting of the two Foreign Ministers, Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to work out the process ended in a fiasco with both sides trading charges.
The process of conciliation was held up till February 2011 when the two foreign secretaries met on the sidelines of the SAARC ministerial conference at Thimphu. It was here that the two sides decided to adopt a more cautious “step-by-step” approach and the resumption of a “structured dialogue”.
Both sides agreed not to be sidetracked by nomenclature of the past, and decided to discuss all the eight outstanding issues: peace and security including confidence-building measures (CBMs), Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul navigation project, terrorism and drug trafficking, economic and commercial cooperation, and the promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields.
In recent months there has been a flurry of high-level meetings between the secretaries of home, commerce, defence and water resources of the two countries to narrow the differences. The major gains during the first round of the resumed dialogue has been Pakistan clearing “in principle” the Most Favoured Nation status for India to improve trade, measures to step up cross-LoC trade and CBMs and the setting up of a judicial commission to visit India to speed up the trial of the 26/11 perpetrators.
The Maldives meeting between Manmohan Singh and Gilani formally kicks off the second round in the current dialogue process. Both leaders have pragmatically observed the next round should be “far more productive.”
Foreign Minister SM Krishna told The Tribune that he expected the second round to work towards something “doable and tangible.” That is going to be the key if the dialogue process has to sustain.
From Thimphu to Addu there has been real progress that, if pursued, could lead to a new chapter in the relationship that the two leaders referred too. If the next round consolidates the process, then it may culminate in Manmohan Singh paying the long awaited visit to Pakistan - his first as Prime Minister. That would indeed be historic.
Union Cabinet ministers are particular that when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is around, they leave all the talking and media briefings to him unless they are asked by him to do so. But Pakistan central ministers don’t seem to observe such a protocol, particularly Rahman Malik, its Interior Minister.
Even as Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani were holding their summit meeting, just outside the conference room, the irrepressible Malik was holding forth to the media.
For the first time he asserted that 26/11 hit-man Ajmal Kasab “is a terrorist. He is a non-state actor. He should go to the gallows.”
Looking suitably righteous, Malik added, “So too must those who were responsible for the Samjhauta rail blasts.”
Malik knew full well that the Indian side would be uncomfortable with such a comparison. (Hindu extremists are charged with the 2007 bomb blasts on the train near Panipat that killed 67 people, most of them Pakistanis).
Having delivered the barb, Malik resumed his conciliatory tone, stating that Pakistan would soon be sending a Judicial Commission to examine the evidence that Indian courts had collected against the 26/11 perpetrators so that they could prosecute those held in Pakistan. He remained vague as to when the trial would be completed stating, “ it is too early to say how long it would go on."
He indignantly brushed aside questions about Pakistan’s decision to remove the Jamat-ud- Dawa (JuD), widely known to be the front for Lashkar-e-Toiba, from the list of terror organisations. Malik’s glib explanation, "Information is not evidence and there is need for concrete legal evidence for keeping them in the terror list".
Nor was he defensive about the release of JuD founder Hafiz Saeed, stating blandly, "He was bailed out by the highest court of Pakistan and we as government can't do anything about it". While claiming that the Pakistan government was not aware that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbotabad when he was shot dead by US special forces, he admitted that, “ bin Laden was trained by the CIA and ISI and knew how to hide.”