Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will tomorrow become the first Pakistani head of state since 2005 to visit archrival India when he makes a trip that includes lunch with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
During what officials from both sides describe as a “private” one-day visit, Zardari will be the guest of the Indian premier in New Delhi before heading to an important Muslim shrine in Ajmer to offer prayers.
The trip, which was confirmed this week after leaks in the press, has received a cautious welcome from analysts who say it reflects some improvement in ties since the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based militants.
However, they warned that little progress could be expected on sensitive topics such as the disputed region of Kashmir and Pakistani militant activity against India, that make the cross-border relationship one of the most dangerous in the world.
“Zardari expressed a desire to visit India primarily for a pilgrimage and it is only correct that we welcome him to the capital,” said G. Parthasarathy, a retired Indian diplomat and former high commissioner to Pakistan.
“There will be talks and I expect the prime minister to raise issues such as our concerns over terrorism. Relations were rock bottom in 2008, so they have improved,” he said.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from British rule in 1947 and also carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998.
The two countries came to the brink of conflict most recently in 2001, and tensions again peaked after the Mumbai attacks during which 166 people died in carnage blamed on Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Zardari’s visit comes shortly after the US issued a US$10 million bounty for LeT founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who lives openly in Pakistan.
A US official praised the planned rare talks between India and Pakistan, describing them as a “win-win situation” for the US and said it did not want the bounty “to impact” on Zardari’s visit.
“We’re not playing some sort of strategic game here,” US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said. “We’re just trying to prosecute this individual.”
Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research, said of the visit: “This is a largely symbolic occasion and contentious subjects will be avoided.”
Pakistan foreign policy is seen as preserve of the powerful military and Chellaney said Zardari wielded little real power in the country.
“You can’t have substantive talks with someone who doesn’t run anything,” he said.
Trade is one area of discussion that the two leaders may find fruitful as Pakistan moves to normalize trade ties by phasing out major restrictions on Indian imports by the end of the year.
In 1996, India granted Pakistan “most preferred nation” trading status, while Pakistan last year agreed in principle to match the move.
Sources in Islamabad said that among the 40 members of Zardari’s family and staff expected to accompany him on the trip would be Pakistani Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik, potentially undermining its “private” status.
The last Pakistani leader to visit India was former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who also offered prayers at the shrine of sufi saint Moinudin Chishti in Ajmer, 350km southwest of Delhi.
“Zardari could just go to Ajmer and back home, so meeting Manmohan Singh makes it significant, even though it’s not official,” Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari said.