IN WHAT amounts to a significant diplomatic outreach to Pakistan, India has invited its Commerce Minister, Pervaiz Malik, to participate in the informal WTO ministerial meeting taking place in Delhi on March 19-20. Malik is said to have confirmed his attendance.
The invitation to Malik comes in the wake of the late-December secret back-channel negotiations between the two national security advisors, Ajit Doval and Nasser Janjua, first reported in The Indian Express, and takes place after the global Financial Action Task Force (FATF) threatened to isolate Pakistan over the weekend if it didn’t stop using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
As the decision to participate in the SAARC summit, to be held in Pakistan, comes up again for consideration by the Centre — India and several other South Asian nations had refused to go last year, ensuring a cancellation of the summit — Delhi is planning a more nuanced Pakistan policy than it has been seen since the Pathankot attacks two years ago.
Diplomatic sources from India and Pakistan have confirmed that the two sides have decided to undertake an exchange of all their prisoners in their respective jails. They will soon begin this exercise by releasing the “most vulnerable,” that is, women and children and mentally disturbed prisoners, some of whom languish behind bars after long outliving their original sentence.
As many as 50 “vulnerable” prisoners are said to be living in pitiful conditions in Indian and Pakistani jails.
This most obvious of humane steps will now be carried out alongside targeted measures already being undertaken to control militancy inside Jammu & Kashmir as well on the Line of Control and international border.
However, under pressure by the international community to “reach out” to the Pakistani government and its civil society, Delhi has withdrawn its objections to participating in multilateral meetings with Pakistan.
On Friday, Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar stood alongside Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Pakistani
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Turkmenistan President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, at the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline inauguration ceremony and called it a “peace pipeline” that will deliver both gas and peace to the troubled South Asian region.
But the decision not to contaminate every international meeting with their public quarrels, both over Kashmir and terrorism, was taken by India and Pakistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Kazakhstan last June, thereby reassuring all other participants that the SCO would not be hijacked by its newest members.
As reported by The Indian Express, Delhi even hosted a four-member team from the Pakistani security and intelligence establishment — including its director-general in charge of counter-terrorism in the Pakistan foreign ministry — from January 31 to February 2 in Delhi, along with similar delegations from other SCO participating nations.
The invitation to the Pakistani Commerce Minister should be seen in that light, diplomatic sources said. Sartaj Aziz, then foreign affairs advisor, was the last Pakistani leader to visit India in December 2016 for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in Amritsar.
Malik will of course meet his host, Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu, but it isn’t clear yet whether he will also be received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Clearly, as the NDA government enters the final year of its term in office, a re-evaluation of its Pakistan foreign policy seems to be on the cards. Delhi realises that it cannot bank only on the US to put pressure on the rest of the world to make Pakistan fall in line — just as it did in the FATF plenary in Paris over the weekend — but must also take steps to assuage its friends and partners that it is also “seen to be doing” something.
But Delhi is fervently hoping the FATF crackdown will force Pakistan to act on its own longstanding demands to take action against Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, as well as its operational leaders, like Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi.
The government has made it clear that the Prime Minister’s participation in the SAARC summit in Pakistan later this year will be dependent on the action Islamabad takes against those accused in the Mumbai attacks.