The meeting point

By being evasive, PM is turning a simple meeting with Nawaz Sharif into a fraught political question

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to be tying himself in knots on the question of talking to Pakistan. In accommodating the hawks at home and yielding to pressures from the Congress party to avoid anything controversial with Pakistan in an election year, the PM may be abdicating his responsibility to lead the nation's foreign policy. Consider, for example, the PM's remarks on Saturday during a flight back from the G-20 Summit in Russia. Singh would say neither "no" nor "yes" to a pointed question on his plans to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, when both leaders are in New York next month to attend the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly.

In refusing to rule out the meeting, the PM was affirming the political conviction that India must never abandon talks with its neighbours. Singh added that he has personal "respect" for Sharif, "who has said the right things about how relations between our two countries should evolve". At the same time, the PM pointed to the "harsh realities" that have to be factored into his decision on meeting Sharif in New York. These include continuing cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, Islamabad's reluctance to rein in Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, and the inability to bring the plotters of the Mumbai massacre in 2008 to book.

The PM's diplomatic track record suggests his strong inclination to meet Sharif in New York. He has initiated formal and informal contacts with Sharif in the last few weeks. The apparently deliberate construction of diplomatic ambiguity on Pakistan talks, then, looks too clever by half. It is no one's case that dealing with Pakistan is easy. Nor is one meeting in New York going to change the basic structure of India-Pakistan relations. Avoiding Sharif, however, will do more damage to Indian diplomacy than having a frank chat with him about Delhi's concerns. Atal Bihari Vajpayee talked to Pakistan in circumstances far more difficult than those facing India today. Vajpayee exercised foreign policy leadership, often in defiance of the hawks in the BJP. In turning a simple meeting with Sharif into a complex political question and an occasion for posturing to domestic audiences, Singh is making it much harder to achieve even limited forward movement in India's relations with Pakistan.

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