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Manmohan Singh plans Pakistan visit

29 January, 2014

NEW DELHI: In what might be his final major diplomatic move as prime minister, Manmohan Singh appears to have finally agreed to visit Pakistan, to revive the stalled composite dialogue.

It is learnt the visit will take place most probably in March, after the Budget session of Parliament, yet at least a month before elections. It is likely the next Lok Sabha elections will be around mid-April and continue till early May, according to Indian media.

The main agenda of the visit, say sources, will be resumption of the composite dialogue between the two governments. Commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma has been asked to pave the way for the PM's visit when he goes to Pakistan next month to attend the Made-in-India show, an exhibition expected in Lahore on February 14-16.

The dialogue got suspended after an Indian soldier was allegedly beheaded by the Pakistan army on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir in January last year. After this, several reports of ceasefire violations by both sides started emerging.

The matter came to rest with the much-awaited meeting of the Directors-General of Military Operations on December 24, which took place after 14 years. Both sides decided to maintain peace on the border and matters appear to have begun to brighten up after this meeting.

The Composite Dialogue Process spans all the issues pending between the neighbours, including the dispute on J&K, Sir Creek and Siachen. It formally began in 1997 between I K Gujral, the then PM in India, and Nawaz Sharif, then and now the Pak PM. It also deals with other "confidence building measures", such as economic and commercial cooperation, cooperation on terrorism and drug trafficking.

"We are committed to forging friendly and cooperative relations between our two countries, which we believe are in our mutual interest and essential for the progress and prosperity of the peoples of our region," Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Singh on the occasion of Republic Day.

There are also loud murmurs doing the rounds that when Singh visits Pakistan, the latter will phase out the 'negative list' of items for trade, which technically means giving India the 'Most Favoured Nation' trade status, the term for non-discriminatory market access.

Singh was reportedly keen to visit the village where he was born, Gah in the Pak Punjab. On January 3, during one of his rare press interactions, he had been quite explicit in stating his desire to visit Pakistan before the elections.

When contacted, officials in the Prime Minister's office told Business Standard that Singh had spoken the last words on the issue at this press conference.

At the conference, the prime minister had said, "I would very much like to go to Pakistan. I was born in a village which is now part of west Punjab."

He, however, had also added that as prime minister of the country, he 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," Dr Singh had said.

In recent months, there had been several high-level visits from Pakistan after the new Sharif government came to power there. Sharif had invited Singh to visit Pakistan several times, through various diplomatic channels. Immediately after coming to power last May, he sent a special envoy, Shaharyar M Khan, extending an invite as part of his Track-II diplomacy with India.

This was followed by the visit of Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, who came during the Asia-Europe summit in November and met Singh, urging him to revive the composite dialogue. Aziz also met External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Both sides seemed to have agreed to revive bilateral talks on all aspects.

This was later followed by the visit of Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab and also the prime minister's younger brother. Then it was Pakistan's Commerce and Textiles Minister, Khurram Dastagir Khan, who met Singh on the sidelines of the Saarc Business Summit earlier this month and invited him to visit.

Private sector representatives from both countries are also expected to meet next month in Pakistan as part of the Pakistan India Joint Business Forum.

End.

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