Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province in Pakistan, on behalf of his brother of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on December 12 to deliver a formal invite for visiting Pakistan and discussed bilateral relations.
Ever since he took office in May 2004 Singh has not found an opportunity to respond to Pakistan's invitations to visit the country.
However, on one pretext or the other, Pakistan's presidents and PMs have visited India. Starting with former PM Shaukat Aziz's visit in November 2004 as chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), followed by the self-invited visit of President Pervez Musharraf in April 2005 to watch a cricket match in New Delhi, and again a visit by Aziz in April 2007 for the Saarc Summit — all these occasions were used for discussions on bilateral relations.
Musharraf, who visited on the pretext of watching the match, spent only an hour at the stadium though his visit was three-day long. There was a banquet, media briefing and a joint-statement at the end, all the trappings of a State visit.
Following the terror attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, there was a gap for a few years when there were no high-level visitors from Pakistan. However, in March 2011, PM Yousuf Raza Gilani availed Singh's invitation to watch the World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at Mohali, in Punjab.
Singh used the occasion to hold a dialogue with his guest. In April 2012, the stopover in New Delhi by President Asif Ali Zardari, while on a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif, too was used to review bilateral ties.
While Pakistani leaders either looked for or sought an opportunity to visit India, India consistently declined Pakistan's invitations. In March 2006, Singh could have taken the inaugural Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service and used the opportunity for talks.
In the early years after Independence there were frequent visits by the PMs of the two countries. After Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to Pakistan in September 1960 to sign the Indus Water Treaty, it was Rajiv Gandhi who took the initiative to visit Islamabad twice — in December 1988 to attend the Saarc Summit and in July 1989, for a bilateral visit.
Gandhi's initiative was noteworthy as it came at a time when the relations between the two countries were strained due to Pakistan's support to cross-border terrorism.
Since then Atal Bihari Vajpayee made two visits — in February 1999 when he took the inaugural New Delhi-Lahore bus, and in January 2004 for the Saarc Summit. On both occasions, the dialogue resulted in important decisions, particularly the joint-statement of January 6, 2004, when for the first time Pakistan formally agreed to cease its support to cross-border terrorism.
Reciprocity between nations is an important element of diplomacy. After many visits by Pakistani leaders, it is time our PM reciprocated. Singh has often said that one can choose one's friends but not neighbours, and has emphasised the importance of keeping the dialogue going, as he demonstrated in September 2013 by meeting Nawaz Sharif in New York, despite tension along the Line of Control.
In keeping with his own perception of relations with neighbours, it enjoins upon him to make a visit to Islamabad before he demits office in May.
Avtar Singh Bhasin is a retired diplomat and editor of India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study
The views expressed by the author are personal