An opportunity missed

Published January 6, 2014

It’s no secret that Manmohan Singh has been keen to visit Pakistan since he became India’s Prime Minister in 2004. But, contrary to his personal wish, the visit hasn’t happened and is unlikely to happen in the five months he will remain Prime Minister.

I had travelled with Dr. Singh to Amritsar when he inaugurated the bus service to Lahore in 2006. Just before the visit, one of his aides had mentioned to me that the issue of taking the first bus to Lahore from Amritsar had been discussed, but then abandoned.

Looking back, that perhaps was the best time to have gone even though it would have still been a symbolic, not substantial visit. But there was an occasion – something new was happening – the first-ever bus service from Amritsar to Lahore since 1947 was being inaugurated.

Speaking in Amritsar on March 25, 2006, Singh had said that the peace process with Pakistan must “ultimately culminate” in a treaty of peace, security and friendship with Pakistan.

My report in The Hindu newspaper said at the time:

Suggesting a step-by-step approach, Dr. Singh said both sides should begin a dialogue with the people "in their areas of control" to improve the quality of governance. Borders, which could not be redrawn, should be seen as "just lines" on the map so that the people on both sides of the Line of Control were able to move freely and trade with each other.

The Indian leader added:

I also envisage a situation where the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir can, with the active encouragement of the Governments of India and Pakistan, work out cooperative, consultative mechanisms.

When Singh went to Amritsar and refrained from visiting Lahore, it was a time the ceasefire was holding, there had been no Mumbai attack and then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would wait one year before sacking Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Nearly eight years later, Singh addressing a press conference in Delhi on Friday made no bones about his desire to visit Pakistan:

I would very much like to go to Pakistan. I was born in a village which is now part of west Punjab. But as Prime Minister of the country, I should go to visit Pakistan if conditions are appropriate to achieve solid results. I have thought of it many times, but ultimately I felt that circumstances were not appropriate for my visit. I still have not given up hope of going to Pakistan before I complete my tenure as Prime Minister.

In five months, conditions are not going to become appropriate to achieve what Singh calls solid results. The ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) remains wobbly and forces in India and Pakistan that don’t want peace with the other are on the rise yet again.

Singh’s tenure as prime minister is ending with a whimper, his personal image sullied by repeated charges of corruption against his government and key ministers. A major initiative with Pakistan looks as unlikely as the Congress-led coalition returning to power for a third time.

The Prime Minister reflected some sense of the missed opportunity with Pakistan at his press conference when he said:

I have tried to improve relations with all our neighbours to the best of my ability. At one time, it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight [with Pakistan]. Events in Pakistan, for example, the fact that General Musharraf had to make way for a different setup, I think that led to the process not moving further.

India-Pakistan relations are a story of missed opportunities and weak, wobbly political intent. Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani interlocutors have displayed that yet another chance to establish durable peace has been missed.

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