With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart set to meet on Thursday on the sidelines of the Non Aligned Meet in this Egyptian town, the big question is: can they end the diplomatic deadlock between their countries created by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack?
If all goes well, the leaders will make a joint media appearance after their one-on-one meeting. A joint statement, indicating the two countries have come to an agreement on a post-26/11 bilateral agenda, would be icing on the cake.
The foreign secretaries of the two countries held talks on Tuesday on issues including the trial of Jamaat-ud-Dawah leader Mohammed Hafiz Saeed for his role in the Mumbai terror attack. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir indicated agreement would be difficult: “We want to turn the corner in our relationship. We have agreed to continue our conversation. It is uphill. Pakistan is prepared.”
A joint statement would convey the two countries had agreed on an agenda to address outstanding issues, including the thorniest: terrorism.
The gap between the two governments may not be bridgeable. Pakistan wants a full resumption of the eight-point composite dialogue that has been the basis of bilateral negotiations since 1997. New Delhi is believed to want a more abbreviated dialogue that focuses on terrorism.
Indian officials say that the very fact that officials are working towards having the two PMs jointly address the media means both sides have resolved to move the process forward.
But the environment has not been improved by the fact that one of the principal accused in Pakistan’s 26/11 case, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operations commander, has been deferred for the third time until July 18 because no judge has been appointed. It was worsened by the news that the Pakistan Punjab state government has dropped its appeal against the release of Saeed.
Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met a month ago in Russia during the BRIC summit. However, relations were soured by Singh publicly telling Zardari that his “mandate” was to tell Pakistan it must shut down terror networks behind attacks in India.
There is an assumption Islamabad is under some pressure from Washington to come to an agreement with India and move the peace process forward. The US, embroiled in an escalating war along the Afghan-Pakistan border against the Taliban, wants to ensure Pakistan does not use tensions with India to divert attention and resources away from that conflict.
Islamabad has noted the symbolism of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spending the first night of her coming state visit to India at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the site of the worst carnage during the 26/11 attack.