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Gates open for CM caravan

- Nitish to visit places never explored by Indian leaders

New Delhi, Nov. 7: In a week’s time, Nitish Kumar will have scored an exclusive and unlikely brownie point — he will become more widely travelled in independent Pakistan than any other Indian leader ever.

It is a trip that has barely fetched any advance notice but it is set to become historic for the sheer geography that India’s most significant neighbour has decided to open up in welcoming a man whose reputation far precedes his impending arrival in the commercial metropolis of Karachi on Friday.

He has been lauded in the recent past by a slew of Pakistani prominences from foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar to celebrity starlet Veena, who said Nitish’s arrival in Pakistan is no less anticipated than the visit of Lalu Prasad who left Pakistan ravished with his rustic charms and gift of the gab.

Lalu had gone on a three-day trip to Pakistan as part of a parliamentary delegation in 2003 and left a trail of memorable quotes among which was an impromptu rhyme on “Lalu and aloo” at a vegetable mandi. Nitish, by contrast, is leading a delegation of his own on an extended eight-day expedition. No other Indian politician has stayed on in Pakistan so long on a single visit.

A brief run of Nitish’s ports of call: the Indus Valley cradle of Mohenjodaro, the upper Sindh hub of Sukkur, Islamabad, the hilly outskirts of Bani Galla, the ancient university site at Taxila, the Katas Raj temple in Chakwal, and finally Lahore, the heartbeat of Pakistan. It is not devoid of significance that Nitish’s caravan is being allowed to travel overland from Islamabad to Lahore along a spanking motorway, a privilege few guests are extended.

In each of Pakistan’s three major cities, the chief minister is scheduled for high protocol appointments — President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in Islamabad, Sindh chief minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah in Karachi, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, and brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore.

None of that is likely to much impact the bilateral table, currently in the midst of a slow rearrangement following the 26/11 disruption. State chief ministers travel abroad firmly advised to keep diplomacy off their portfolios.

Ahead of his departure, Nitish was briefed by relevant officials of the ministry of external affairs on the broad lay of Indo-Pak relations, what subjects to approach, what to avoid. “These are routine and general briefings that spell out the national interest in relation to a particular country and underline possible faultlines and pitfalls to avoid,” sources in the MEA told The Telegraph. In this case, the briefing may have lasted long.

The most feted — and photographed — of Nitish’s meetings is likely to come midway through his visit to a hill mansion overlooking Islamabad. His Bani Galla estate is where cricket icon and aspiring Prime Minister Imran Khan will welcome Nitish Kumar for an hour-long pow-wow. Imran, whose Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf began grabbing international attention with an electric streak of public rallies across the country, has often held out Nitish as an example how backward economy can be resuscitated to recovery and been on record to say he is eager for an opportunity to meet him.

Nitish may have a thing or two to share with Imran of his experience in Bihar but it remains moot what he will want to know from the Pathan personage sitting across him. Nitish is not known to be a cricket aficionado, although the same can’t be said with as much certainty of other members of his delegation who might vie for their slice of stardom on Bani Galla. The jury must remain out on whether Nitish himself returns home with stardust on his feathered cap.

Lalu Prasad’s footprint is never easy to follow, after all. But should you ask Nitish, he would say it is best skirted.