Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's private visit to India on Sunday will provide an opportunity for the top leaders on the two sides to take stock of latest developments in the peace process that resumed last year after a gap of over two years in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks though no major announcement is expected from this meeting.
The time the two leaders will spend together will be too brief for any major developments though the meeting comes on the heels of important breakthroughs in normalising trade relations. Also the last time Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Zardari met in Russia, the meeting had not gone well as Manmohan had told Zardari in front of the media to take action on the Mumbai attacks.
There has been much movement in one soft area -- trade -- and things are looking up but the two sides have been unable to address more contentious issues. India remains deeply suspicious about Pakistan's intention to punish those responsible for the Mumbai attacks while Islamabad has significant concerns about New Delhi's plans for Afghanistan and differences over sharing of river waters.
The most prominent of course is the Kashmir issue, for which no solution appears to be in sight. Many still think the four-point formula suggested by former military President Pervez Musharraf was the best course but that is now not acceptable to many in Pakistan. The issue of water has become a major concern in recent years for Pakistan and some have taken advantage of it to spread all sorts of rumours about hundreds of dams being built in India. There is a need for greater clarity through negotiations on this issue. The role of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan should not become part of the formal talks between the two countries as they are currently not even discussing this issue.
President Zardari apparently had a "mannat" (making wish) and that is the ostensible reason for this visit to India to go to the Ajmer shrine. One presidential aide said this visit had been planned for about a year. But any visit, even private, by a top Pakistani leader assumes other dimensions, especially when Zardari plans to meet the Indian Prime Minister. Even brief but background discussions could open new doors and allow both sides to explore new options related to outstanding issues.
There is a large number of people in Pakistan who want better relations with India despite opposition by hard-liner Islamic groups. Among the business community, there are again many who are very enthusiastic about the possibility of greater trade with India. But at the same time, there are groups like the amalgamation of scores of mostly religious groups and individuals known as "Defence of Pakistan Council" which are able to mobilise huge crowds for protests and have targeted India at their protests and rallies. Also in India some fanatics are opposing good relations with Pakistan and the India's Hindu extremist leader Bal Thackeray warned President Zardari Friday against his scheduled visit to India.
There are still pockets in Pakistan which harbour hatred towards India for various reasons, but things can improve. It is now widely believed that the powerful military and the civilian leadership favour stability in the region and desire good relations with India. Certain quarters still are of the opinion that the catch is the military, which has shown no signs of moving away from the Pakistan army chief Gen Kayani described as its " India-centric" role.
The biggest boost to confidence with India would be if Pakistan takes some sort of step to rein in jihad groups or if those responsible for the Mumbai attacks would be properly prosecuted. Many in Pakistan think Mumbai is a closed chapter but trends have shown this is not the case in India.
Obviously, Pakistan wants some sort of assurances on the waters issue. It also wants India to address its concerns about the Indian role in Afghanistan. Many Pakistani leaders have spoken about India's role in the violence-hit southwestern Balochistan province but there has been no proof provided in this regards. However, open discussions can clear the air.
The biggest fear everyone has is another Mumbai-like attack or scenario. Otherwise, all the latest developments in India-Pakistan relations have been positive. But with this bilateral relationship, it is hard to predict anything. Things were worsening rapidly when the Mumbai attacks occurred. Moreover, external factors can influence the relationship, like the issue of 10 million U.S. dollars bounty for Hafiz Saeed, leader of the banned outfit Jamaat- ud-Dawa,has already cast a shadow on Zardari's planned visit. Saeed's group had been accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks.
Although President Zardari is paying a private visit, it has assumed great importance and interest in both countries which could further strengthen the approach to find out solution to regional problems in the region without any foreign intervention.
Pakistan has already been pursuing this policy. The country's leaders visited Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey in recent months, and leaders from those countries also visited Pakistan. The visit to India is also a step forward to achieve the goal to explore solution of regional issues in the region.