|Nawaz Sharif (left) with Manmohan Singh at the
New York Palace hotel in New York on Sunday.
Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
New York, Sept. 29: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave in to domestic political compulsions and restricted himself at a one-hour meeting here today with Nawaz Sharif to a common minimum programme of restoring peace and tranquillity along the Line of Control (LoC.)
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon told reporters after Singh’s first meeting with Pakistan’s new Prime Minister that the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both countries will meet “as soon as possible” to suggest concrete steps to restore ceasefire and to end violations of the sanctity of the LoC.
The Prime Minister, according to Menon, told his Pakistani counterpart that such steps were a pre-condition to any improvement in relations with the neighbour.
Singh went so far as to put on hold his cherished desire to visit his birthplace of Gah until there is peace and quiet along the LoC.
Sharif invited Singh to visit Pakistan. But Menon’s assertion that no date has been fixed or is even being considered was an indication that the objective of the New York meeting between the two leaders was to set a realistic objective of making the LoC safe before any other form of engaging Islamabad can be planned.
Reciprocally, Singh also invited Sharif to visit India, which he accepted. But again, no date for such a visit is being considered and was not discussed today.
The Pakistani Prime Minister mentioned Siachen and Sir Creek as possible deliverables in improving bilateral ties since much progress has already been made towards solving these issues.
But Singh’s response was that they could wait until the first priority of peace on the LoC is achieved.
Menon said India insisted that increased trade and better economic relations would also await progress on the “immediate issue” which was the situation on the LoC.
He said this did not, however, mean that today’s meeting was unproductive. The high-level interaction which was facilitated on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly was good for the troubled relationship and there was a desire on both sides for better ties, which would be pursued once the DGMOs suggest concrete steps to restore normalcy on the LoC.
Singh had lowered expectations from meeting Sharif even before he arrived in New York after realising that any grand bargain with Pakistan at this stage would inflame domestic political passions and attempts would be made by the Opposition to kill such bargains.
Actually, the Prime Minister could not be sure about support for any such bargain even from his Congress party after the experience in the past two days over the controversial ordinance that was approved by the cabinet and then spurned by the party’s vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
By making peace along the LoC his priority, Singh has ensured that the Opposition has no handle against him, unlike when Indian soldiers were beheaded some months ago and jawans were killed by Pakistanis more recently.
The Prime Minister was briefed by his aides before he went into the meeting with Sharif that a major controversy had broken out back home over remarks allegedly made by his Pakistani interlocutor in an off-the-record conversation with some journalists, describing Singh as a dehati aurat or village woman.
That the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi had swiftly exploited those remarks – which were later denied – served as a reminder to Singh of what he could expect on his return if he tried to do anything with Pakistan beyond a small, realistic, common objective.
For Singh, who was determined from day one of his prime ministership to attempt to permanently solve disputes with Islamabad, it was obviously frustrating and disappointing.
The Pakistanis appeared to show understanding of and appreciation for Singh’s predicament, at least initially and till the time of writing. Their foreign secretary, Jalil Abbas Jilani, did not attempt any partisan spin at his media conference here and his script largely followed that of Menon.
Both out of conviction and as an allowance to political expediency, Singh raised the issue of cross-border terrorism and the need to bring to book perpetrators of the attack on Mumbai in 2008.
Sharif assured Singh that there would be action on the Mumbai terror outrage. Now that a judicial commission from his country had visited Mumbai and gathered evidence, there would be further progress in the case, he told the Indian side.
Menon was, however, cautious and said “the only proof will be in the months to come” as far as the usefulness of today’s meeting was concerned. Jilani did not parry questions about New Delhi’s concerns about cross-border terrorism, but pointed out, instead, that his country was also a victim of terrorism.
Menon was optimistic that once the DGMOs work out a mechanism to restore tranquillity along the LoC, other steps for overall improvement in ties with Pakistan were possible. He poured cold water on the idea that the coming elections would delay a rapprochement with Islamabad.
When Vajpayee visited Lahore and took major steps towards an Indo-Pakistan bonhomie, elections to the Lok Sabha were only few months away, he reminded reporters.
Singh and Sharif arrived simultaneously at the venue of their meeting, a function hall at the New York Palace Hotel where the Indian Prime Minister is staying. They greeted each other in Punjabi. But there was no exuberance in Singh’s demeanour that was expected for the first meeting with Sharif who has consistently sent good vibes to India since his recent assumption of office.
He avoided eye contact with Sharif and even looked away at one point during the Pakistani leader's greeting. Obviously, troubles awaiting Singh back in New Delhi were a distraction and aware that television cameras can be unforgiving, he was careful about how he dealt with the Pakistani delegation.
Singh’s uncharacteristic attacks on Pakistan on American soil in the last two days describing that country as the epicentre of terrorists also may have made it awkward for the Prime Minister to look Sharif in the eye.
Menon said the Pakistanis again brought up Balochistan at today’s meeting. But India appeared to have made up its mind to bury the ghost of Sharm-el-Sheikh where the issue crept into a joint statement and ruined Singh’s sleep for several days and undermined then foreign secretary Menon’s standing.
Today Menon said there was no evidence of Indian meddling in Balochistan. He offered to look into any proof that Pakistan could provide adding that he had not seen any such evidence.
Wiser by the experience in Sharm-el-Sheikh, India did not want a joint media conference today or even a joint statement after the meeting with Pakistan. The Prime Minister also did not break bread with Sharif, although their meeting took place in the morning.
‘VILLAGE WOMAN’ BRAWL
A journalist’s claim that was picked up
and amplified at a Delhi rally by Narendra Modi seemingly without verification kept Pakistan on tenterhooks barely hours
before Prime Ministers Manmohan
Singh and Nawaz Sharif met.
Pakistan journalist Hamid Mir said on
Geo News on Saturday that “Nawaz Sharif Saheb told Barkha Dutt with a smile that it looks as if Manmohan Singh Saheb went not as India’s Prime Minister but as a
dehati aurat (village woman) to complain against me to Obama”.
Modi referred to the purported remark on Sunday to poke fun at Singh.
PTI said an upset Sharif sent a message
to Singh early in the morning in New York that he never used such language. Sharif is understood to have tasked his foreign secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani to pass on the message to Singh. Jilani called Indian
national security adviser Shivshankar Menon who said the Indians were already aware of the factual position, according
to sources. Menon’s words were greeted
with relief by the Pakistanis.
Modi’s outburst triggered a rebuttal from Dutt, the Indian journalist Mir had referred to. The Pakistani journalist also responded, contradicting his own initial reference to Dutt. Mir later told PTI that Sharif did not use the words.
What Narendra Modi said: My heart is grievously hurt. Yesterday, the Pakistan PM told some journalists from India and Pakistan over
breakfast that the Indian PM is like a “dehati aurat”…. There cannot be a bigger insult to India.
The journalists who were sitting in front of Nawaz Sharif when he was insulting our Prime Minister should also answer to the people of my country…. I expected those Indian journalists, the country
expected them, to refuse the sweets and walk out.
Barkha Dutt: In
my presence no slur of “dehati aurat” was made about Manmohan Singh
Hamid Mir: Barkha
wasn’t present all the
time… Nawaz never
Barkha Dutt: Surely I am not THE story, Mr Modi?
● @BDUTT To @narendramodi I want to say: there was no pejorative word used for @PMOIndia in my presence. And surely I am not THE story, Mr Modi?!
● @BDUTT Sharif was upset that Pakistan raised by India with Obama. In
this context he told an
allegorical tale about a
dispute in a village (cont)
● @BDUTT In Sharif’s tale there was a dispute between 2 villagers, one was a woman. Story ended with how fights shd be settled between parties (cont)
● @BDUTT Sharif’s
allegorical account was all about how disputes shd not involve third parties. Not once was a slur passed by him against the PM
● @BDUTT Pakistanis
will need to ask @HamidMirGEO why he distorted what was to me just an
illustrative story on
● @BDUTT In his
interview to me Nawaz Sharif in fact called @PMOIndia a “good man” whom he was going to
invite again to visit Pakistan
● @BDUTT I just received an email from @HamidMirGEO saying he has nw
clarified his comments on Twitter, to Indian Newspapers & Pakistan media
● @BDUTT Now @HamidMirGEO has also said like me that nothing “derogatory” was said by sharif about PM, reinforcing my
argument. Seals the lid.
● @BDUTT Absar Alam, Pakistani editor present at same breakfast meeting
rubbishes @HamidMirGEO initial comments. Says“dehati aurat” never used!!