By Manish Chand
New Delhi: It’ set to be more than a photo-op as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gears up to hold one-on-one talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari before the two sit down for lunch at his official residence here Sunday.
The two leaders will hold restricted talks before they sit down for talks with their delegations, well-placed sources said.
Zardari, the sources said, will be coming with a 40-member strong delegation that includes Interior Minister Rehman Malik, close family members of the president and senior journalists.
The list of Zardari’s delegation was conveyed to India’s foreign office only Wednesday afternoon.
The visit by Zardari, the husband of the slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been described by both sides as “private” as the 57-year-old president voiced his desire to offer prayers at a revered sufi shrine in Ajmer.
But Manmohan Singh, who has invested much diplomatic capital in turning around India’s accident-prone relationship with Pakistan, quickly seized on the opportunity to hold talks with the Pakistani leader to push the revived sub-continental peace process.
The inclusion of Malik, the sole minister to be part of Zardari’s delegation, has fuelled speculation that the talks are going to be more than a feel-good exercise and all issues, including Pakistan’s progress in prosecuting the 26/11 Mumbai terror perpetrators, will be on the table.
In view of positive movements on trade since India and Pakistan resumed their peace process last February, Indian officials have been careful not to harp on terror this time around, but the issue is expected to figure in the discussions given strong domestic sensitivity over the slow pace of 26/11 justice.
The US announcement Monday of a $10 million bounty for 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed has complicated the contours of the forthcoming talks, with India upping the pressure on Islamabad against the man widely seen as not only the architect of the Mumbai terror carnage, but a virulently anti-India demagogue who has been preaching jihad against New Delhi with impunity.
Home Minister P. C. Chidambaram treaded cautiously when he was asked Monday whether the prime minister will take up the Hafiz Saeed issue with Zardari.
“I don’t know what the prime minister will discuss. He is coming on a private visit to a religious place, so this may not be the occasion,” said Chidambaram. He, however, added in the same breath: “We will continue to raise the issue on every occasion.”
Chidamabaram may hold talks with Malik and expect to be updated on the progress in Pakistan’s action against 26/11 terrorists and Saeed.