THE only outcome of the foreign secretaries’ talks in New Delhi is that there is no outcome. Matters remain where they were before Jalil Abbas Jilani and Ranjan Mathai met. For two days, they put their heads together and then came out with a joint statement that might as well not have been there, notwithstanding the familiar ‘they agreed’ refrain on issues ranging from visa liberalisation and cultural contacts to Kashmir and nuclear CBMs. At Thursday’s press conference, Mr Jilani refuted Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s charge that the evidence gathered after Zabihuddin Ansari’s arrest confirmed Pakistani ‘state actors’ were involved in the Mumbai carnage. Sadly, once again on the eve of talks, prospects of peace dimmed following the arrest of the suspected terrorist in circumstances that remain a mystery. And judging by its reaction, India has still not emerged from the shadows of the Mumbai attack. At the same time, Pakistan has continued to stall on trying to punish the Mumbai suspects, increasing Indian frustration.
Beginning with their meeting in Bhutan in 2010, which gave rise to what the media called the ‘Thimphu spirit’, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh met several times and pledged to push the peace process forward in a manner that appeared genuine. At Mohali, where they watched the cricket world cup semifinal in March last year, Mr Gilani extended an invitation to the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan — an offer that was renewed by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar when she was in New Delhi in July the same year. The two prime ministers met again in the Maldives and South Korea, but without achieving a breakthrough even on less contentious issues. The apogee of good intention was reached over the April ‘lunch’ when President Asif Ali Zardari not only invited the host prime minister to visit Pakistan, the latter accepted the invite and said he would be “very happy to visit Pakistan on a mutually convenient date”. Given the way things are moving, one shouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t agreed on a “convenient date”.
The MFN issue is bogged down by Islamabad’s insistence on the removal of non-tariff barriers; in May the interior secretaries merely spoke of an agreement on a liberal visa regime “at an early date”, and in June the defence secretaries reported failure on Siachen. This is a record the two sides should be ashamed of. The only consolation for the people of South Asia is that the two governments continue to talk. There is no breakdown of communication, and this perhaps is the only sop.