The news that an Indian Prime Minister will be visiting Pakistan can be capped only by an announcement that he will not be visiting Pakistan.
Ever since Manmohan Singh took over as India’s Prime Minister almost eight years ago, there have been rumours, whispers, expectations, subtle hints, unsubtle leaks and covert exploratory missions — rehearsals that led the
public to expect an actual performance.
It appears now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had written to President Asif Zardari in November, regretting his inability to accept Zardari’s invitation to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak together.
The letter from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to President Zardari was released to the Pakistani public days, if not weeks, after its delivery to the presidency by the Indian high commission. RSVPs do not normally take so long to be disclosed.
Could the reason have been that someone on the hill in Islamabad preferred to wait until the sting in the refusal had lost its potency?
Obviously, the pull of nostalgia for Manmohan Singh to visit his birthplace of Gah near Chakwal was not enough. The gravitational force within India opposing such a visit was much stronger. That anti-force draws its strength from the Mumbai attacks of 2008, which remains for millions of Indians a still raw memory, a scab as unhealed as Pearl Harbour had been for two generations of Americans, before it was overtaken by the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Decisions to make official visits at the prime ministerial level are not normally made on the spur of the moment. There may be an occasional run between wickets during a spontaneous innings of cricket diplomacy, or a quick trip to Shimla or Agra but those were necessitated by circumstance, not choice.
Visits are normally the result of careful aforethought and behind-the-curtain negotiation. Who will sit where, who will open the discussions, what will be agreed upon, what will be disagreed upon, will there be a separate or a joint press release? Who will be the first to claim success? Who will be the first to disown failure? This is
the kind of fodder that keeps diplomats occupied as they chew their cud.
For example, in July 1807, Emperor Napoleon I of France met his counterpart Czar Alexander I of Russia to sign the Treaties of Tilsit. Honour was assuaged between equal monarchs by conducting the negotiations on a raft floating on the River Neman.
In July 1971, Zhou Enlai arranged for his secret meetings with Henry Kissinger to take place in the Fukien Room of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The significance was lost on Kissinger, more familiar with 19th-century European history than with 20th-century Chinese sensitivities. It was only after he returned to Washington that he discovered that Fukien was the Chinese province that lay opposite the straits dividing the Chinese mainland from the contested island of Taiwan.
In October 2012, President Putin of Russia abruptly cancelled his visit to Pakistan a few days before his scheduled date of arrival. His vacuum was filled as a diplomatic sop by his foreign minister Lavrov, but a Mark Antony (however articulate) is no substitute for a live Caesar.
By postponing his visit to a point short of cancellation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision has left his friends in Pakistan in a mood of deflation.
No one was expecting any major diplomatic breakthrough from such a visit. A single swallow may not make a summer, but a visit by him (however short it might have been) would have been the herald — if nothing else — of a change of season, a thaw after a long overlay of frost.
One hopes that the mandarins in the ministry of foreign affairs in Islamabad are actively assessing the impact of this decision on Pakistan’s own foreign policy strategies.
They cannot be unaware that Pakistan is trapped yet again between an irascible Russian bear and an Indian elephant with a memory longer than its trunk.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not ruled out the possibility of visiting Pakistan some time in the future.
Whether he will do so as Prime Minister or as a private citizen visiting the place of his birth only time will tell. For the moment, time chooses to remain tongue-tied.
One aspect, though, is quite clear. With general elections due in Pakistan in 2013, the degree of insecurity is such amongst the political parties that any visit by a senior official of any country is interpreted both by the government and the Opposition as either an overt endorsement or a veiled threat.
Today, many Pakistanis remember the visit by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1999, which led to the Lahore Declaration. That has remained the lodestone of subsequent Indo-Pak relations. Fewer Pakistanis will recall the visit by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in September 1960 during which the still durable Indus Water Treaty was signed. Even fewer may be aware that in July 1951, Nehru offered a non-aggression pact to Liaquat Ali Khan, which he rejected until the Kashmir issue was resolved.
Manmohan Singh’s decision not to visit Pakistan is yet another opportunity lost. He could have, with careful pre-calibration, initiated discussions on a no-war treaty between two nuclear powers, to be signed off by two civilian elected governments. He could have become the first dove in swallow’s feathers.