Manmohan likely to meet Nawaz Sharif in NY, after all

“True, the political critics of the government would inevitably ask the question: why now? But the counter question is: why not? If the LoC tensions are the reason for not having any bilateral meetings with Pakistan, this can be the very reason why Manmohan Singh should meet Nawaz Sharif. He would be getting a chance to tell Sharif upfront what India feels about Pakistan’s continuing intransigence. After all, this is the maximum that the Indian PM can do with his Pakistani counterpart in a peacetime situation and tell him that the buck of terrorism stops here”, says the author.

The die seems to have been cast. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif seems to be a done deal, the straws in the wind suggest. This meeting may take place on 29 September in New York, one of the two days when the Indian Prime Minister would be in New York to attend the 68th United Nations General Assembly session. The drift of the thinking in the Indian diplomatic establishment suggests that Singh will have no option but agree to a meeting with Nawaz Sharif. This meeting, if it indeed takes place,may not be just a courtesy call but is likely to be a full-fledged structured meeting. The composition of the Indian Prime Minister’s team, which is scheduled to accompany Manmohan Singh for his 25 September- 1 October visit to the US, would reveal it all, once the visit and the PM’s team are finally announced. The Indian PM will be in New York from 28 September to 30 September. The brief window open to Manmohan Singh for bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly would be then. This writer had written a fortnight back that Manmohan Singh may not meet Sharif in New York if the principal opposition party, the BJP, were to allow the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement in parliament in the monsoon session which ended on 6 September.

The rationale was a deal between the UPA government and the BJP which could have taken place on quid pro quo basis. This did not happen as the government, because of strident opposition to the LBA bill from the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, could not pilot the bill. Since this has not happened, the UPA government is under no obligation to do what the BJP wants. The two issues were inter-linked. The behind-thescene negotiations between the government and the BJP boiled down to the basic compromise formula: you give us Bangladesh and we will give you Pakistan. In other words, the Congress- BJP negotiations, anchored by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, were rooted in a give-and-take formula which envisaged that the BJP allows the government to pilot the LBA bill in parliament and in return the government would play out its Pakistan policy as per BJP wishes. The BJP has been pressuring the UPA government not to have any talks with Pakistan in view of Pakistan’s sins of omission and commission, exemplified by the developments on the Line of Control in the past few months. The UPA government has many reasons for going ahead with a meeting between Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif. One, India should acknowledge and appreciate the systemic changes in Pakistan where democracy seems to be gaining roots. For the first time in its 68-year-old history, Pakistan has seen a change of government through the ballot, rather than the bullet.

Nawaz Sharif has created a record with not just returning as the third-time PM of Pakistan but has also come as a Prime Minister of his country by defeating the ruling party electorally. Thus, the argument is that India as the biggest democracy of the world would be playing itself in the hands of authoritarian and extremist elements in Pakistan if the Indian PM were to ignore Nawaz Sharif. Two, Nawaz Sharif and his foreign policy advisor Sartaz Aziz have made all the right noises in past few weeks, stressing the need for having a meaningful dialogue with India. Three, India has to do business with anyone who is at the helm of affairs in Pakistan, irrespective of various flashes in the pan in the bilateral context. In a way, it is a continuation of the BJP’s only Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s averments that India cannot change its neighbors and thus will have to do business with its neighbors, irrespective of the provocations. Four, the international community has been pressuring both India and Pakistan to stay engaged. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has gone on record as saying that he would welcome and promote a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA. The US too has been rather vociferous in its pronouncements on India- Pakistan issues and been saying that the two neighbors need to return to the negotiating table. On 18 September, the visiting US Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter said in New Delhi that Pakistan’s economic future will mainly depend on its peaceful relationship with India. “We (India and the US) talked about Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There is new government in Islamabad and one thing I learnt there (in Pakistan) it gives high priority to economic development. Fundamentally, Pakistan’s future economically depends on its peaceful relations with India,” Carter said. India does not stand to lose anything by having a summit meeting with Pakistan in a neutral country. True, the political critics of the government would inevitably ask the question: why now? But the counter question is: why not? If the LoC tensions are the reason for not having any bilateral meetings with Pakistan, this can be the very reason why Manmohan Singh should meet Nawaz Sharif. He would be getting a chance to tell Sharif upfront what India feels about Pakistan’s continuing intransigence. After all, this is the maximum that the Indian PM can do with his Pakistani counterpart in a peacetime situation and tell him that the buck of terrorism stops here. It is another matter that the Pakistani intransigence would likely continue, be it along the LoC or in the form of fomenting terror attacks on India. That is because the real key to power lies with the Pakistani military establishment. But then India has to do business with the proclaimed leaders of Pakistan and not with back room generals of the Pakistan army who have been remote-controlling the Pakistani leadership.

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