Washington, May 3: Pakistan has made an offer that India cannot refuse.
It has given up its insistence that the Kashmir issue should be resolved before progress can be made in any other area of India-Pakistan relations.
In an interview to BBC’s Hindi service, Pakistan’s foreign minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri has unilaterally offered to discuss improvement in trade ties with India without waiting for a solution on Kashmir.
“This is a new thing,” Kasuri acknowledged in the interview. “India has always said that it wanted to talk about trade issues and we have insisted that Kashmir should be discussed first... now we accept India’s argument and would like India to take the first step.”
Diplomatic sources here insist that this major change in policy was made at the instance of the Chinese, who have played a key backstage role in facilitating the latest shift in diplomatic equations in South Asia.
China’s foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, who set a diplomatic ball rolling in Islamabad during the war in Iraq at the request of his British counterpart Jack Straw, is understood to have advised the Pakistanis to follow the pattern of Sino-Indian thaw in General Pervez Musharraf’s dealings with New Delhi.
India and China agreed during late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing that an improvement in their bilateral relations would not be hostage to their border dispute. In the long years since then, India and China have normalised their relations even as slow, but steady progress is being made on the complex border.
In meetings between March 1997 and September 1998, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan agreed on a similar new format to conduct their bilateral talks.
This agreement, which was formally announced in New York in September 1998 at a meeting of the two foreign secretaries, came to be known as the “Composite Dialogue” of eight subjects which were to be given equal importance.
Meetings were held in Islamabad between October 15 and 18, 1998 and New Delhi between November 5 and 13 the same year under this format, paving the way for Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore.
But after Musharraf seized power in October 1999, overthrowing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Islamabad reverted to its long-held policy of “Kashmir first or nothing else”.
Kasuri’s landmark offer, conveyed through the interview, takes India-Pakistan relations to status-quo ante to the point where the Lahore process began.
If and when there will be another meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf will depend on a number of developments.
Perhaps, the most important of these is that the Bush administration has summoned the chief of ISI, General Ehsanul Haq, who is arriving here today for three days of intense meetings.
Although Haq’s itinerary is not being made public, it is likely that he will meet deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage before the latter flies to South Asia tomorrow.
With signs that the leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad are willing to take their relations out of the deep freeze, developments influencing their relations have acquired a momentum of their own.
Yesterday, Pakistan — under pressure from other Security Council members, according to some diplomats in New York — gave up plans to use its presidency of the Council in May to push Kashmir to the forefront of UN deliberations.
A meeting which Munir Akram, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, had scheduled for May 13 to stealthily introduce Kashmir into the Council’s agenda has now been coverted into a meeting to discuss all outstanding disputes.
“Every time Pakistan speaks in the Council on peace and security, we speak about Kashmir and we will continue to do so in our national capacity,” Akram told reporters after chairing his first meeting yesterday. “But as Council president, we will act with utmost impartiality.”
A dozen or so Pakistani parliamentarians will also visit New Delhi in the next few days. In the run up to Vajpayee’s Lahore trip, too, Indian MPs had visited Pakistan. Several BJP MPs were making their first trip to Pakistan at that time.