Manmohan's Saudi visit sends a message to Pakistan

NEW DELHI: The timing of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia, within 36 hours of the stalemated talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries and the day after Taliban terrorists struck and killed at least six Indians in Kabul, has been fortuitous.

Manmohan Singh could, with authority, tell his Saudi interlocutors including the monarch King Abdullah, the Custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines, that his government, which also represents 160 million Indian Muslims, was trying its best to give peace in the region a chance, but Pakistan was not on board.

It is a message that, along with the red carpet welcome accorded to the Indian Prime Minister in Riyadh, has Pakistan uncomfortable if not, according to some media reports, even worried. India and Saudi Arabia raised the level of their bilateral relationship to a Strategic Partnership, in which one of the key focus areas is terrorism, and even signed an extradition treaty.

While several analysts like B Raman have said it was incorrect to think that the Saudis would rein in what is essentially Wahhabi terrorism directed against India from Pakistan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gently but firmly

reiterated to the Saudi

leadership that all problems between India and Pakistan could be resolved through meaningful bilateral dialogue if Pakistan only adopted a more “reasonable” attitude against terrorist elements targeting India, and has urged them to get Pakistan to desist from anti-India terrorism.

“I hope that the world community gets the right message that India is a victim of terrorism,” Singh told reporters on Monday. “That we have a situation where our neighbour has promised, unambiguously, not to allow its territory to be used for perpetrating terrorist acts directed against India and yet, on the ground progress has been rather nil,” he said.

The failure of last Thursday’s India-Pakistan foreign secretary-level talks in New Delhi to make any headway, followed by a major attack on Indians in Kabul, has been viewed by several analysts as an expression of the kind of negative and, indeed non-cooperative attitude from Islamabad that has made the task of bilateral rapprochement very difficult.

The attack was intended, analysts said, to show India the ease with which its assets in Afghanistan could be attacked by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) - controlled Taliban and a gory warning that India should reconsider its functions in Afghanistan. Pakistan is keen that India should shift out of Afghanistan where its massive development and rehabilitation efforts worth over $1.3 billion have earned it widespread popularity with the average Afghan citizen.

According to a leading South Asia analyst with the US Council on Foreign Relations Daniel Markey, there is no big shift in Islamabad’s attitude towards India. Markey believes that Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir’s recent comments in New Delhi reflect ‘a prickliness’ on Islamabad’s part to what it regards as ‘being sermonised or something like that’. Talking of ‘civilians (like Bashir) essentially toeing the Army’s line’, a view shared among the Indian foreign policy establishment, Markey commented ‘the pushing back by the Foreign Secretary in Delhi sounds a lot like what we have traditionally heard out of the Pakistani army’.

“The Pakistani military and intelligence continue to call the shots on foreign and defence policy,” he said. “Their position, which is a harder-line, more hawkish position, will be echoed by civilian authorities from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister to the President.” Markey, who had met Bashir in Islamabad prior to the latter’s New Delhi visit, said. “Across the board, there is, to my eye, relatively little shift in Pakistani attitudes about what India represents.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry was quick to say it was ready to resume a composite dialogue with India, but would not accept preconditions set by New Delhi for the process. Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit yesterday said Islamabad could also set a number of preconditions for starting the dialogue, but “it believes in settlement of bilateral issues with India through a positive negotiation process”.

There is little clarity, however, about the future course of the bilateral dialogue.