There was no major announcement, no official breakthrough. But Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari’s “private” visit to India yesterday highlighted what observers believe could be the start of a new chapter for the two countries after many years of turmoil and tension.
In what represented the highest-level meeting in either country for seven years, Mr Zardari and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh said they had “fruitful” private talks without the presence of aides before taking lunch. The two countries later issued a statement in which they said they were willing to find “pragmatic solutions” to the issues they disagreed upon.
Mr Zardari’s one-day visit was technically a personal trip to allow him to visit the famed 12th Century Sufi shrine at Ajmer Sharif in the western state of Rajasthan. In truth, no visit from a head of state, especially not one from Pakistan, could ever be considered truly private.
But this approach permitted the meeting with Mr Singh to take place without great expectation or build-up from either side. As it transpired, Mr Singh was invited to visit Pakistan while Mr Zardari’s son and anointed political heir, Bilawal, extended a similar invitation to Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and a man widely expected to eventually follow in the footsteps of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather and serve as India’s prime minister.
“Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal. That’s our common desire,” Mr Singh said. “We have a number of issues and we are willing to find tactical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues and that’s the message that president Zardari and I would wish to convey.”
As the two men emerged from Mr Singh’s official residence where they were said to have lunched on a variety of South Asian dishes, Mr Zardari added: “We would like to have better relations with India. We have spoken on all topics that we could have spoken about and we are hoping to meet on Pakistani soil very soon.”
Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours – never warm - tumbled to a new low in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks carried out by Pakistani militants that left more than 160 people dead. While bringing to justice the perpetrators of the attacks – including alleged mastermind Hafiz Saeed - remains a stumbling point between the two nations, Mr Zardari and Mr Singh have invested personal capital in trying to repair the relationship.
Ajay Gudavarthy, a political scientist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said he believed the purportedly casual nature of Mr Zardari’s visit, even with his 40-strong entourage, was crucial. “I think this is a new beginning that has to be taken very seriously,” he said. “The body-language was one thing, the informality was another. The informality is something that is very new.”
Former Pakistani general Talat Masood said while there was a long way to go before relations between the countries were normalised, he was struck by the resolve of the two leaders. The apparent support of Pakistan’s military for the undertaking, he said, was also important. “There is a glimmer of hope this time that steps they want to take could be concretised,” he added.
Mr Singh has pushed for more informal meetings during his two terms as prime minister. Last November, he met Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in the Maldives and the two agreed to closer co-operation.
The visit by Mr Zardari, the first by a Pakistani head of state since Gen Pervez Musharraf’s trip in 2005, took place as Pakistani rescue teams, supported by helicopters and sniffer dogs, renewed their search for 124 Pakistani troops and 11 civilians who were covered by a huge avalanche on Saturday near the 20,000ft Siachen glacier in Kashmir, known as the world’s highest battlefield. India and Pakistan fought two wars over Siachen and hundreds have died there, mostly from the freezing and inhospitable conditions.