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Natwar's Pakistan visit: Peace may get a boost

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September 30, 2005 20:32 IST

External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh is visiting Pakistan at a time when, at least ostensibly, the peace process between India and Pakistan seems to reached a sort of deadlock, as was evident from the rather banal statement issued in New York after the summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President General Pervez Musharraf.

The general expectation from Natwar Singh's visit, therefore, is that it will try to put the peace process back on track. But well-informed sources in Pakistan believe that things are not at all so dismal, and that while no dramatic announcements should be expected during the visit, there will definitely be forward movement on issues on which both sides have reached an understanding.

Let Pakistan not set the agenda

Interestingly enough, despite nothing tangible being achieved at New York, the Pakistani establishment was quite satisfied with the summit meeting. According to a well-informed Pakistani source, the meeting helped both sides in better understanding and appreciating the others' compulsions as well as the trade-offs involved.

What is more, according to this source, the American intervention removed whatever misunderstandings either side harbored about the other's intentions. This is exactly the impression that was conveyed by senior Pakistani high commission officials in New Delhi as well as by sources in the Indian foreign office.

The single most important item on Singh's agenda this time will be institutionalising the dialogue process through the revival of the Joint Commission. This will enable both sides to address issues that are currently out of the ambit of the Composite Dialogue framework. Moreover, the Joint Commission will give an impetus to greater economic cooperation between the two countries.

According to a Pakistani source, there is a possibility that the issue of foreign direct investment by Indian companies in Pakistan will come up for discussion during Natwar Singh's visit. Many Pakistani businessmen and economists believe that at a time when Pakistan is exerting to invite FDI from rest of the world, denying Indian companies the chance to invest in Pakistan doesn't make any sense.

Has the peace process forgotten the Pandits?

The Indian foreign minister is also likely to use his visit to reiterate India's commitment to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, something that will not only balance the Indian vote against Iran at the IAEA but also demonstrate India's independence in the realm of foreign policy.

Apart from the Joint Commission and prospects for economic cooperation, Natwar Singh will also review the progress made in the course of the Composite Dialogue with his Pakistani counterpart. On Sir Creek and Siachen -- two issues that both sides believe are solvable -- much progress has been made. In case of Sir Creek, both sides have undertaken a joint survey of the area and have moved closer to a solution. On Siachen too, differences have narrowed. The main sticking point in case of Siachen is the verification of positions that both sides currently occupy.

Pakistan did it again!

While India has been insisting on marking the actual ground positions, the Pakistani side has been insisting on using satellite imagery to mark these positions. Sources believe that a deal will be struck somewhere in between these two positions.

A very important aspect of Natwar Singh's visit will be that it will lend continuity to high level political interaction, something that the Indian side believes will keep lending the necessary momentum to the dialogue process. This is especially important as far as the issue of Kashmir is concerned.

While there will definitely be discussion on the situation in Kashmir, once again all that is being expected is that both sides will review the progress made and try to initiate some more Confidence Building Measures. But no announcement will be made on any kind of troop withdrawals from the Indian state.

The rough and the meek

According to sources, while India has given Pakistan an assurance that it will withdraw troops from population centres, this has been made contingent on Pakistan acting more decisively against the jihadi groups operating from Pakistan-controlled areas. Moreover, India will make an announcement on troop withdrawals at a time of its choosing and from Indian soil. The New York meeting has apprised the Pakistani leader quite well with Indian sensitivities on the issue and therefore while it will be raised during Natwar Singh's meetings with his Pakistani interlocutors, it is unlikely if this will be made into a major issue during this visit.

As part of the Indian effort to broadbase the political contacts with Pakistan, the Indian external affairs minister will also visit Karachi. Both India and Pakistan have agreed to re-open their consulates in Karachi and Mumbai respectively and these are likely to become operational by January. The visit to Karachi will also accord Mr Singh an opportunity to review the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link that too is likely to become operational by January.

Musharraf's new gameplan

All in all, the Indian foreign minister will have quite an agenda to fulfill during this visit. And while quiet progress is likely to be achieved, no dramatic announcements are expected. If anything, the visit will be an effort to put the peace process on a more stable and solid footing that absolves it of the need to achieve dramatic results each time senior figures from the two sides meet. This is exactly what normalisation of relations between any two countries connotes.

If at all any major decisions are going to be made then they will be made either at the sidelines during the SAARC summit at Dhaka in the second week of November when the prime ministers of the two countries meet or later at the Commonwealth summit in the same month when the Indian PM meets Pakistan's Real PM (Pervez Musharraf).

Sushant Sareen