In his talks with the Pakistani leadership, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee notched up gains not just for SAARC and the bilateral peace process but also for his party, the Congress.
How? On the face of it, Pakistan's agreement in principle to permit resident Indian diplomats free access to Hasanabdal, the seat of the much revered Punja Sahib gurdwara, has given Mukherjee's party an attractive plank to reach out to the Sikhs in poll-bound East Punjab.
As Mukherjee read out the nine points on which the two sides agreed to take the dialogue forward, old-timers here recalled that the grandfather of his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri, was the Congress's pradesh unit president in pre-Partition Punjab. Mukherjee had himself flagged the point at their first meeting during Kasuri's private visit to Delhi for the wedding of the daughter of another Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar.
"The beauty of it is that the agreement cannot be interpreted as a violation of the Election Commission's model code in operation in the Indian Punjab," a Congress functionary told Hindustan Times in a long distance conversation. Of equal help, he said, could be the convergence on a committee of jurists to propose steps for "humane treatment" of prisoners and the "expeditious release" of those who have completed their terms in jails on either side.
In fact, Mukherjee brought up the issue of Indians in Pakistani jails while conveying to Pervez Musharraf the angst of the families of Prisoners of War (POW). The Pakistan President responded to that as a "soldier who understood the feeling". An Indian official at the meeting later quoted him as telling Mukherjee: "Let them (the relatives of POWs) come here and see things for themselves."
Certain analysts have interpreted Musharraf's offer as the first Pakistani admission of the presence of POWs in its jails. But in immediate terms, the issue's relevance is in domestic terms, not as much the India-Pak relationship so often marred by the engaging parties' proclivity to score brownie points.
The point is illustrated by the average 10,000 Sikh pilgrims visiting the Punja Sahib in separate jathas in April, June and November every year. "If Pakistan keeps its promise, we'll be better placed to help the pilgrims," sources in the Indian High Commission here said. Only a limited number of resident officials are currently allowed to visit Hasanabdal in the pilgrimage season.
It goes to the interlocutors' credit that they managed to push bilateral issues during the protocol visit Mukherjee undertook to invite Pak Premier Shaukat Aziz to the 14th SAARC Summit New Delhi is hosting in April.
Together with Pak Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, the Indian leader lent political impetus and a broad direction to the composite dialogue that will enter its fourth round on March 13-14.
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