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As India's regional leaders boldly reach out to Pakistan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have tamely ruled out a visit to Islamabad in the near future. The deputy chief minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, has just returned from Lahore, claiming that a historic moment in the relations between the two Punjabs is at hand.
Even before Badal crossed the border at Wagah, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was arriving to a warm welcome in Karachi. That neither of these visits has got much attention in Delhi underlines how out of touch the "national" establishment is with the "regional" imperatives shaping India's foreign policy.
Badal's Akali Dal and the Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) are both both allies of the BJP. Their embrace of Pakistan stands in contrast to the BJP's reflexive hawkishness.
If the BJP has abandoned the peace legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Congress has not had the courage of conviction to follow through its own initiatives. Conservatives in the UPA cabinet, like Defence Minister A.K. Antony, have repeatedly blocked the PM's initiatives, including his plans to visit Pakistan a few years ago.
The PM has also allowed the intelligence agencies, the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy to exercise a veto over his regional initiatives. These agencies are supposed to give professional inputs, but it is the PM's prerogative and responsibility to make policy.
In its reluctance to put politics in command of the nation's neighbourhood diplomacy, the Congress has ceded the initiative not to the BJP, but to regional leaders.
Badal and Nitish Kumar are filling the political vacuum by developing ideas that Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have articulated since the late 1990s. Badal is only retracing the path of Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister who took the first steps to promote cooperation between the two Punjabs. And Nitish Kumar is following Lalu Prasad, who made a hugely successful visit to Pakistan a few years ago. The difference is that Badal and Nitish Kumar have high political stakes in deepening ties with Pakistan.