Never mind what the spin doctors in the Congress Party or the Prime Minister’s Office may say about the unlikelihood of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meeting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month. The long and short of it is that Mian Nawaz Sharif and Sardar Manmohan Singh will have a bilateral meeting in New York, possibly on September 29th.
By then, both Sharif and Singh will also have each met with US President Barack Obama. The Indian PM is scheduled to meet Obama in Washington DC on September 27th while Sharif may have a short meeting with Obama the next day in New York. Both Singh and Sharif are likely to take the podium at the annual General Debate on September 28th.
Sources in the Indian External Affairs Ministry as well as the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi indicated that both Singh and Sharif are keen to meet each other, their sundry advisers trying to convince them to do otherwise be damned. There are, however, more naysayers on the Indian side. It will also be their first meeting after Sharif’s election as the PM of Pakistan in May.
It seems that the meeting would be held was never under question. The two countries’ Permanent Missions in New York have made preparations, including reserving the hotel room for the meeting. Earlier this month, the two back-channel interlocutors – India’s Satinder Lambah and Pakistan’s Shahryar Khan – met in Dubai to thrash out the meeting’s agenda.
Sharif’s interview to a Turkish television channel yesterday has further shrunk the space for any on the Indian side who didn’t want the meeting to take place. The Pakistan PM said he was committed to a “serious, sustained and constructive engagement” with India. “I have always given high priority to good relations with India for the sake of durable peace in the region. We are keen to have a comprehensive dialogue with India for the resolution of all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir,” said he.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has also said that he has been promoting a Singh-Sharif meeting on the margins of the UNGA session. The Secretary General while in Pakistan last month had suggested to Sharif to take advantage of the UNGA session for a meeting with his Indian counterpart. “I will continue to provide my own support and efforts to facilitate such a dialogue,” Ban said in New York. He said the two leaders should and could handle the issue of recent violence across the Line of Control.
On his part, the Indian PM while returning from St. Petersburg after attending the G20 Summit earlier this month said that he might meet Sharif if the atmosphere was conducive for such a meeting. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid echoed the PM at his meeting with Adviser to Pakistan PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Bishkek last week.
But sources said New Delhi would come across in a bad light if it were to reject the possibility of such a meeting, particularly after Sharif’s television interview and UN Secretary General ‘s statement. Sharif’s government has also made friendly noises over granting India the ‘Most Favored Nation’ (MFN) status. The US has already expressed its keenness to see the two PMs meet. “No purpose would be achieved if the two Prime Ministers do not meet. The Indian PM can convey the message that Pakistan take action against the terror infrastructure and terror masterminds like Hafiz Saeed in stronger terms if he meets Sharif,” said a source.
The meeting, in all likelihood, will also turn out to be their last before India’s general elections next year. This is not considering the minor miracle it would take for the Indian prime minister to decide to visit Pakistan before the end of his tenure. He hasn’t been to Pakistan, where he was born before partition, even once during his prime ministerial innings since 2004.