After he hosts Zardari in Delhi,PM must,finally,make his Pakistan trip
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistans President Asif Ali Zardari sit down for lunch in New Delhi on Sunday,the two leaders can raise a toast to each other for their joint effort to keep alive the India-Pakistan engagement in the dark days that followed the outrageous terror attack on Mumbai at the end of November 2008.
In trying to pick up the threads of the dialogue in 2009,both leaders had to overcome much resistance and scepticism at home. Together,the two have surprised the world with their tenacity in engineering a breakthrough in bilateral trade relations.
For the first time since the frontiers between India and Pakistan closed down after the 1965 and 1971 wars,Singh and Zardari have begun to lend an economic dimension to the border. A roadmap for comprehensive normalisation of bilateral trade relations is now under implementation.
As they celebrate their rescue of the India-Pakistan dialogue from the wreckage of Mumbai,Singh and Zardari are acutely conscious that the political clock is running out on them.
Pakistan will elect a new government and president next year. While Zardari might return to power,Singh will certainly not when his term runs out in 2014. Meanwhile,the domestic political constraints on Singh and Zardaris freedom of foreign policy action remain tight.
Although Zardari has survived the rough and tumble of Pakistans politics,he does not have the power to override the armys veto on Islamabads policies towards Delhi.
Like the army in Pakistan,the Congress party in India is a terribly conservative organisation. For the Congress leadership,doing nothing with Pakistan is preferable to taking any initiative that could be remotely controversial.
Yet,Singh and Zardari know that in the bleak political landscapes they both confront,the only bright spots are the possibilities they have created for each other in exploring new avenues of bilateral cooperation.
Given the informal nature of their meeting,Singh and Zardari are under no pressure to produce ringing joint declarations. This leaves the two leaders free to imagine a consequential agenda for Indo-Pak ties in the coming months.
The last time Singh had met Pakistans president when Pervez Musharraf came to Delhi in April 2005 the two sides agreed on the broad elements for the resolution of the Kashmir question.
Special envoys appointed by them made much progress in translating the understanding into a draft agreement. Before the two leaders could proceed any further,Musharraf began to lose his power amidst domestic political turbulence. The framework that was negotiated on Kashmir remains to be confirmed by Pakistan.
At this moment,Singh and Zardari could productively focus on two important themes. One is to look at a number of agreements that could be clinched in the next few months and the other is to set a date for Singhs visit to Pakistan.
Until now Singh has maintained that there must be substantive agreements in hand before he travelled to Pakistan. While Singhs intentions were honourable,this precondition has had a perverse effect.
Thanks to the accident-prone relationship,Singh could never find the time to actually travel to Pakistan in the last eight years he has been the prime minister of India. His predecessor,Atal Bihari Vajpayee,in contrast,had travelled twice to Pakistan during the six years he was at the helm.
There always has been a case for the PM to travel to Pakistan at the first opportunity. It is indeed important for the Indian PM to travel often to the neighbouring countries,even if the visits are informal and last less than a day.
Fortunately,Singh is now in a position to travel to Pakistan for a substantive visit. If the two leaders set a date for Singhs visit,they can mount pressure on the two bureaucracies to deliver significant agreements by then.
Thanks to the recent initiatives of Zardari,much progress has already been made on issues relating to economic cooperation.
Many new proposals are on the anvil. These include cross border petroleum trade,the extension of an oil pipeline from the Indian Punjab to the other side,connecting the electric grids,and the lifting of restrictions on banking and investments to name a few.
Trade liberalisation and modernisation of the infrastructure at Wagah-Attari on the Radcliffe line have created much excitement in both Punjabs. It has also raised expectations for similar openings on the Rajasthan-Sindh border. Others too can be imagined on the Gujarat-Sindh border.
Beyond trade facilitation,India and Pakistan can consider joint development of special economic zones on their long and undisputed international border. Expanding connectivity and transit to third countries present themselves on the agenda after the normalisation of trade relations.
While the prospects for easing the procedure for business visas is at hand,the two sides should consider more comprehensive visa liberalisation,especially for religious travel and people with familial connections across the border.
India and Pakistan had come close in the past to clinching agreements on such difficult political disputes as Siachen and Sir Creek. With a bit of political will and luck on both sides,they can be finalised by the time Singh arrives in Pakistan.
Above all Singh and Zardari have an opportunity to revisit and finalise the draft agreement on Kashmir that was negotiated during 2005-07.
Put simply,there are plenty of agreements that can be finalised in the run-up to Singhs visit to Pakistan. The only question is how much of this expansive agenda can be acted upon,given the constraints of time and circumstance on the two leaders. For his part,Singh must convey to Zardari his readiness to move as fast and as far as the Pakistan president is willing to go.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi,firstname.lastname@example.org