Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari became the first Pakistani head of state since 2005 to visit India yesterday with a one-day trip he described as “very fruitful” in improving ties between the rivals.
During a visit billed as private, but of great diplomatic significance, Zardari lunched with Indian Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and invited him to visit Pakistan.
The meeting has received a cautious welcome from analysts who see it as another sign of improving relations between the bitter neighbors, but the issue of Pakistani militant activity against India remains deeply problematic.
India continues to press Pakistan to prosecute the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, blamed on the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Pure”), which was founded by hardline Islamist Hafiz Saeed.
Saeed lives openly in Pakistan, where the government says it has insufficient evidence to prosecute him, but his terror links were highlighted recently by a US$10 million bounty for his arrest offered by the US.
“We have had some very fruitful bilateral talks together,” Zardari said at a joint news conference during the first presidential trip to India since then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf visited seven years ago.
“We would like to have better relations with India. We spoke on all topics that we could,” added Zardari, who is accompanied by a large delegation including his son and Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
The lunch — with kebabs and curries from all over India, including the disputed region of Kashmir — was preceded by a 40 minute private conversation between the two leaders.
“I am very satisfied with the outcome of this visit,” Singh told reporters. “President Zardari has invited me to visit Pakistan and I’d be very happy to visit Pakistan at a mutually convenient date.”
He said that relations between the countries “should become normal. That is our common desire.”
Analysts expected little progress yesterday on sensitive topics such as Kashmir, which is divided, but claimed in full by both countries, or the presence of anti-India militant groups in Pakistan.
Both were discussed, along with “the activities of Hafiz Saeed” and ways to increase trade between the countries, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters. A visa agreement that will simplify cross-border travel had been worked out and would be signed at a later date.
“Both felt that we need to move forward step by step,” Mathai said of the talks between the leaders, which will be followed by meetings between home and trade ministers in the coming months.
India broke off a slow-moving peace process to settle all outstanding problems with Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which left 166 people dead, but the two sides have since warily returned to the table.
“This is a largely symbolic occasion and contentious subjects will be avoided,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, of the meeting between the leaders.
Pakistan’s foreign policy is seen by many observers as the preserve of the powerful military, and Chellaney suggested Zardari wielded little real power.
“You can’t have substantive talks with someone who doesn’t run anything,” he said.
Zardari will later fly to a Sufi shrine in the town of Ajmer, 350km southwest of New Delhi, where he will tour the renowned complex of mosques built around a tomb commemorating a saint who died in 1236.