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Sharif sees hope in ‘clear mandate’

Nawaz Sharif’s son Hussain at Jama Masjid. (PTI)

New Delhi, May 27: Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan pulled off their “icebreaker” meet smoothly today, each side promising to pass on the baton for talks to their foreign secretaries without holding them hostage to core concerns: terrorism for India and Kashmir for Pakistan.

“Let us change confrontation to cooperation,” Sharif said in a statement just before leaving for the airport. “My government stands ready and is in the spirit of cooperation.”

“Prime Minister Modi underlined concern over terrorism. Terrorism from its (Pakistan’s) territory. Foreign secretaries will remain in touch… the PM (Modi) expressed hope (that the two countries will work for) the economic, social and cultural development of South Asia,” foreign secretary Sujata Singh said.

Sushma Swaraj, the new external affairs minister, was with Modi in each of the back-to-back talks the Prime Minister had with the leaders of the Saarc nations and Mauritius. The meeting with Sharif was the longest, 50 minutes.

In her briefing on the talks that Modi had with each of the visiting foreign leaders, there was a conscious effort to avoid use of either aggressive words or delve too deeply into issues that have domestic ramifications, such as the question of military training for Sri Lankan personnel in India.

Refusing to give a “record of discussions”, the secretary said — after repeated questioning on the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, last Friday, the trials of the suspects of the 26/11 terror attacks and on the whereabouts of Dawood Ibrahim wanted for many crimes in India — that “all concerns over terrorism were clearly articulated”.

In his statement, Sharif acknowledged the political shift in India and the potential that it may hold for bilateral relations.

“I had pointed out that we both were at the beginning of a clear mandate from our respective nations” — Sharif won the elections in Pakistan in June last year. He also found words (oft-repeated) to assuage immediate concerns on terror attacks from outfits based in Pakistan: “Our common agenda is not possible without peace and security.”

There was no indication of how the foreign secretary-level talks will be structured — whether it signals the revival of a composite dialogue process or whether the new regimes will look for newer mechanisms.

Sujata Singh said that would evolve. For now, “we want peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan; however, for such relations to proceed it is important that terror and violence is brought to an end”.

The unstated acceptance on both sides was an acknowledgement that as of this evening, each of the Prime Ministers had found a diplomatic milestone despite the opposition within their countries as well as even in their ruling coalitions.

If there is a sense of a beginning with Sharif in Pakistan, there is a sense of an ending with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Karzai is slated to demit office in about 45 days.

He stated after arriving in India yesterday that there was evidence from an US agency that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba had a hand in the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat. Karzai is believed to have shared the information with Modi in his talks.

On Bangladesh, the Indian foreign secretary acknowledged that the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhry, had conveyed a desire in Dhaka that Modi should make Bangladesh his first foreign destination. Chaudhry was here for Modi’s inaugural because Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is on a scheduled visit to Japan. Singh said the discussions covered a range of issues.

Modi told Chaudhry that he would “actively consider” the pending questions on the sharing of the Teesta Waters and the execution of a Land Boundary Agreement. The Bangladesh Speaker also delivered a letter from Sheikh Hasina.