| AB Vajpayee in New Delhi on Saturday. (AFP)
New Delhi, May 3: Pakistan today formally invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Islamabad, but the Prime Minister declined to rush into talks at the “highest political level” right away.
Responding to Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s invite, Vajpayee tonight refused to make any commitment, saying “careful preparations” were required for a “meaningful engagement at the highest level”. But he did not reject the invitation outright.
It is likely that Delhi will offer to start talks with Pakistan at a lower level, perhaps that of joint secretary.
In his letter to Jamali, Vajpayee underlined that India was committed to bettering ties with Pakistan and that it would grasp every opportunity for doing so, foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said. But first, cross-border terror had to end and its infrastructure dismantled to create a conducive atmosphere for sustained dialogue.
The exchange of letters comes a day after Vajpayee sent a clear signal for renewing dialogue between the estranged neighbours. He had announced in Parliament that he wished to revive diplomatic, civil aviation and sporting links with Pakistan on a reciprocal basis.
This is the second time this week that Jamali has asked Vajpayee over for talks. On Monday, Jamali had informally invited him to visit Pakistan when the two leaders were speaking over phone.
This morning, Indian charge d’affaires in Islamabad T.C.A. Raghavan was summoned to the Pakistan foreign office and handed the invite for Vajpayee. But before extending the invitation, Jamali spoke over phone with US secretary of state Colin Powell. Agency reports from Islamabad suggest Jamali had informed Powell of his decision.
Powell also spoke to foreign minister Yashwant Sinha this morning, calling him up from Damascus and chatting for about 15 minutes. Powell is believed to have welcomed the steps taken by India and Pakistan to restore peace.
The issue of infiltration across the Line of Control and violence in Jammu and Kashmir figured briefly in their talks. Powell is believed to have agreed with Sinha that cross-border terror had to stop if the neighbours were to have normal relations.
Powell also reminded Sinha that his deputy, Richard Armitage, would soon be visiting South Asia and a detailed discussion could then be held between him and the Indian leadership.
Sinha has also spoken to his counterparts in Britain, Russia and France in the last 24 hours about the latest developments in the subcontinent.
Vajpayee’s decision to not rush to Pakistan could stem from his past experiences. Both his earlier attempts to engage with the Pakistani leadership at the highest level — at Lahore in 1999 and Agra in 2001 — did not end favourably. Within months of the Lahore peace process, the Kargil armed intrusion happened. The Agra summit was deadlocked with the two sides unable to reach any official agreement.
This time around, Delhi appears to have decided to go slow and to start the dialogue at the level of officials. Indications suggest that joint secretaries, not even foreign secretaries, will be involved first. A foreign ministry representative could be sent to Islamabad in the coming weeks to firm up the agenda for talks.
The emphasis is likely to be on composite dialogue on the eight issues identified by the two sides, including cooperation in Siachen, trade and cultural exchanges, people-to-people contact as well as Kashmir. But the stress is not likely to be on Kashmir first.
Sources in South Block said the ground situation across the Line of Control would be monitored even if talks officially begin.
Delhi believes the Pervez Musharraf regime backs terrorists operating both from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, Pakistan has let it down several times over cracking down on militants and stopping the export of terror into Kashmir.
By preferring to start talks at a lower level, India is keeping with itself the option of later upgrading them. If it feels the situation across the Line of Control and in Kashmir has improved significantly, it may decide to go in for talks at the “highest political level”.