Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar can go to Pakistan but the ministry of external affairs wants him and his team to keep their own counsel.
The Panchayati Raj minister had last month asked the ministry of external affairs for political clearance to lead a delegation of nearly 50 people to represent Delhi at the Pakistan-India Symposium on Local Governance. The Panchayati Raj ministry and National Reconstruction
Bureau had signed an agreement to set up a "joint working group" on local governance last year.
The approval to the Lahore visit to be hosted by Pakistan’s National Reconstruction Bureau came nearly 10 days back. But there were a few words of advice for the delegation led by Aiyar, who may have to keep his oratorical flair for one-liners in check.
MEA is understood to have advised that there should not be any comments on Islamabad’s internal affairs and no discussion on the specifics of local governance. And TV talk shows, it suggested to the Aiyar-led delegation, should be a big no, no.
Meenakshi Datta Ghosh, secretary, Panchayati Raj, however, saw nothing unusual in South Block's words of advice. "It is absolutely routine," she insisted. "I think in the MEA, they caution this about every country".
As for the symposium, South Block has asked the ministry to ensure that the Indian delegation does not end up endorsing Pakistan’s local government but limit the interaction to exchanging experiences.
The foreign ministry’s advisory flows from Delhi’s desire not to be perceived to be getting involved in Pakistan’s internal problems relating to democracy and governance.
Opposition parties in Islamabad have been critical of the local government system that they allege was used by Musharraf to undermine parliamentary democracy and perpetuate his rule. They have also expressed fears that they could be used to rig general elections due later this year.
The Panchayati Raj Minister would be the first in the Manmohan Singh cabinet to visit Pakistan after President Pervez Musharraf’s attempt to sack the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry in March triggered widespread protests in the country.
Incidentally, Aiyar had served as Consulate General at Karachi in the eighties before he quit the Indian Foreign Service to join politics and counts Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri as a close friend. Their friendship dates back to the days when they were at Cambridge University; Kasuri had come on a private visit to Delhi last year to attend the marriage of Aiyar’s daughter.