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In Pakistan trip hope, a nudge

New Delhi, Jan. 3: Manmohan Singh today said he still hoped to visit Pakistan as India’s Prime Minister, nudging a cautious foreign policy establishment to make one last-ditch effort at securing a legacy-defining breakthrough with Islamabad before his term ends in May.

Singh married his personal dream of visiting Gah, the village in today’s Pakistan where he was born, to his principal foreign policy priority since 2009 — better relations with Islamabad — to inject a boldly timed impetus into resuming the peace dialogue.

“I still have not given up hope of going to Pakistan before I complete my tenure as Prime Minister,” Singh told reporters just months before a general election, when traditional political wisdom advises caution on nationally sensitive subjects like Pakistan.

“I would very much like to go to Pakistan. I was born in a village which is now part of west Punjab.”

Pakistan has repeatedly invited Singh, first under former President Pervez Musharraf, then under Asif Ali Zardari, and several times during Nawaz Sharif’s seven-month-old tenure as Prime Minister.

As recently as December 10, Sharif had renewed the invitation to Singh in a personal message carried by the Pakistani leader’s brother Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab province where Gah is located.

Shahbaz’s government had declared Gah a model village in Singh’s honour when he became Prime Minister in 2004, and renamed the local boys’ school where he had studied as the “Manhohan Singh Government Boys’ Primary School.”

Singh has on numerous occasions indicated his desire to visit Pakistan and Gah, but the familiar routine of setbacks following every upswing in bilateral ties has thwarted that dream.

The Mumbai terror attacks derailed the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan, and efforts to slowly work back towards the talks were hit last year by gun battles between border forces that killed soldiers from both sides.

“As Prime Minister of the country, I should go to Pakistan if conditions are appropriate to achieve solid results,” Singh said. “I have thought of it many times, but ultimately I felt that circumstances were not appropriate for my visit.”

Singh’s emphasis on his hope of visiting Pakistan in the next few months, and his statement outlining the need for “solid results” to justify the trip, represent a message to Islamabad on what it needs to do to help him sell his peace push in India.

Pakistan, foreign office mandarins said, can catalyse a visit by demonstrating definite progress in trials against the prime accused in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, and by lifting trade barriers at the Wagah-Attari border — both promises that Islamabad has made.

Sharif could also meet Pakistan’s promise of bestowing the status of most favoured nation to India, a tag that helps traders in Indian border states.

But Singh’s clear message that he wants to travel to Pakistan before his tenure ends may lower the bar that Islamabad may need to meet, some officials fear.

“What India needs is a visible demonstration of reciprocity in the desire for better relations coming from Pakistan,” an official said. “We’ve heard the right things since Prime Minister Sharif took office, but we need to see some action on those words.”

Singh confirmed that India and Pakistan were on the verge of a historic breakthrough on Kashmir when Musharraf was in power, before the efforts stalled as the former dictator’s political fortunes declined after 2007.

“At one time, it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight,” Singh said. “Events in Pakistan, for example, the fact that General Musharraf had to make way for a different set-up, I think that had led to the process not moving further.”

Former New Yorker investigative journalist Steve Coll -- now the dean at Columbia University’s journalism school -- had in 2009 reported on this near-breakthrough that eventually fell through, but Singh’s statement is the first public confirmation of those events from India.