| Sharif, singh
Washington, Aug. 22: Nawaz Sharif will have to forgo his Indian breakfast on the last Sunday of September as atonement for the continuing disturbance to peace along the Line of Control with Jammu and Kashmir.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided not to break bread with his Pakistani counterpart when the two men meet in New York on September 29, their first face-to-face engagement since Sharif regained his job as head of government after 14 years.
The decision to scrap the traditional meal is meant to be a show of toughness on the part of the beleaguered United Progressive Alliance government which has been under all-round attack over the recent killing of five Indian soldiers along the LoC and subsequent violations of the long but perennially fragile ceasefire.
The Prime Minister’s back channels with Islamabad have also persuaded the Pakistanis to seek a meeting with India on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Such a tactic deprives the Opposition of a handle against the government in the run-up to the Manhattan summit to claim that Singh, in his desire to visit his birthplace of Gah as Prime Minister, is weakly willing to condone atrocities against India’s jawans either by cross-border terrorists or the Pakistan Army, according to a very senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) who is overseeing the summit preparations.
Any charge against Singh that he is culpable of not suspending dialogue with Islamabad will be countered with the argument that India did not seek any meeting with Pakistan and that he is only being reasonable in his willingness to listen to what Sharif has to say since the Pakistanis sought the meeting in New York.
Breaking bread with the Pakistanis would have created an illusion of bonhomie under the circumstances. But now the atmopsherics in New York will be that of a businesslike meeting where nothing more than conflict management will be on the table.
India and Pakistan have both traditionally revelled in mutual hospitality and efforts to put the best face on their bilateral meetings, except the ones held under the shadow of crises, such as Sartaj Aziz’s famous meeting with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi at the height of the Kargil invasion.
Aziz, then a senior minister in Sharif’s government, is now Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister with the title of foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister. Vajpayee, whose penchant for theatrics is legendary, played his part at that meeting, giving an impression of grave business at hand.
Singh, by temperament, is far less capable than Vajpayee of reflecting his emotions in his demeanour and the PMO has decided, therefore, that by not hosting Sharif for a breakfast, it will send a message similar to the impression created by Vajpayee of tough talk with Aziz.
According to protocol, the side that seeks a meeting goes to the party with which the meeting is sought. As a consequence, Sharif will drive to Singh’s hotel on that Sunday morning in September.
But it is virtually unheard of in the annals of South Asian diplomatic traditions not to be at the hospitable best at summit meetings.
When Singh first met Pervez Musharraf in New York in September 2004, the architect of Kargil charmed the Prime Minister by giving him an original copy of one his mark sheets from Singh’s school in what is now Pakistan.
Protocol officials at the external affairs ministry had overlooked a gift for Musharraf on that occasion. But Gursharan Kaur, the Prime Minister’s wife, had thoughtfully brought along a painting of the old Delhi locale where Musharraf was born.
The general was immensely mellowed when Singh handed over that nostalgic memorabilia to Musharraf as a post script for South Block’s failure after their summit at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, a Pakistani establishment where their leaders usually stay during the UN General Assembly.
Neither side appears to have approached the issue of gifts this time with more than a month to go before the summit.
If South Block does not buy a gift for Sharif and he engages in one-upmanship similar to Musharraf’s gesture of locating Singh’s mark sheet, India may again have to fall upon the ingenuity of Gursharan Kaur to avoid a protocol shortcoming.