India, Pakistan: two steps forward and four backwards?
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has dropped a plan to travel to Egypt next month where he was expected to hold further talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following their meeting in Russia this week.
Pakistan’s foreign office has said Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani will attend the summit of Non-Aligned Nations in the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh although soon after the Singh-Zardari meeting in Yekaterinburg the two sides announced plans for a second meeting in July.
Has something gone wrong?
Newspapers on both sides of the border read more into the change of plans than just a normal swap of duties between the prime minister and the president.
The Dawn linked the cancellation to displeasure over Singh telling Zardari in the full glare of the world’s media that Pakistan should not allow its soil to be used for militant attacks on India.
The soft-spoken Singh’s rather unexpected remark right at the beginning of the first-to-face encounter with Pakistan’s leaders since the Mumbai attacks in November ensured that the meeting was unpleasant from the outset, it said.
Pakistan’s The News said New Delhi had handed Zardari a “well staged slight” but Islamabad was setting it aside because at the end of the day the two sides were talking again.
Indian newspapers were less restrained, saying Zardari dropped out of the next meeting after Singh’s blunt talk and that Islamabad wanted to send the message that his rather public reprimand had not gone down well with Pakistan.
Did India over-reach then? Perhaps too much shouldn’t be read into all this. The Hindu points out that this may not yet be the last word, as Zardari has changed travel plans at the last minute several times.
At home though, they are applauding Singh both for his tough talk and the realisation that you have to engage the “imploding neighbour” because that is the neighbourhood it lives in.
Singh had served notice that India and indeed its neighbours were going to see a more determined prime minister in the months ahead, “a far cry from the man who was seemingly too timid to take on his tormentors during the previous five years,” as New Delhi’s Mint wrote.
And columnist and former ambassador Kuldip Nayar said the meeting hadn’t come a day too soon.
“Too much time and too much money have been wasted in talking against each other instead of talking to each other. The two countries have not experienced peace since independence; 62 years is a long period for the people to suffer estrangement and live in fear of war all the time,” he wrote.
Are they slipping back into talking at each other?