Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to India has produced predictable results.
It was a private visit, but it was unavoidably given an official colour as the Indian prime minister could not have ignored the Pakistani president’s presence on Indian soil without creating a misunderstanding.
Observers would have conjectured that India considered the embattled Mr Zardari a spent force incapable of delivering on vital issues whatever his desire for improved relations with India.
The government would have been criticised for missing the opportunity to show India’s backing for an elected civilian president at odds with the armed forces who, combined with the judiciary, wanted his ouster.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is, in any case, very keen to make a breakthrough with Pakistan and would have sought this unexpected opportunity to engage with Mr Zardari who was, therefore, invited to Delhi en route to Ajmer for a lunch and a private conversation.
Nothing much was expected from this meeting except a review of various issues and a general exchange of views on further steps needed to make progress.
This is so because India and Pakistan are already engaged in a structured bilateral dialogue covering the whole gamut of bilateral issues whose format and the agenda were agreed after tough negotiations.
One round of this dialogue has already been completed and the second has begun. During this period, the Indian prime minister has met Pakistan’s leaders in India and in foreign capitals.
What India expects from Pakistan is known to the latter; the answers Pakistan gives to India’s demands are also known.
If progress in resolving outstanding issues is slow, it is because the issues are overlaid by unhappy history and deep mistrust.
Translating general expressions of friendship and goodwill into practical decisions is very difficult.
India wants satisfaction on the terrorism issue; Pakistan wants “justice” on the Kashmir issue and sees terrorism as a way to force India to yield ground.
This thinking has not been totally discarded even though Pakistan itself has become a prey to the very monster of terrorism it created.
The increasing radicalisation of Pakistan and the impunity with which Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, operates accounts for this.
Now Pakistan has raised the water issue in highly charged terms even though the only agreement that has worked between India and Pakistan is the Indus Waters Treaty.
In these circumstances, to have expected President Zardari’s visit to have provided a breakthrough would have been unrealistic.
At about 40 minutes, the one-on-one meeting of the leaders was shorter than expected.
In this amount of time all outstanding bilateral as well as regional issues could not have been discussed in any detail.
Prime Minister Singh appears to have spoken, not for the first time to his Pakistani interlocutors, about the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice, prevent terror attacks against India from Pakistani soil and curb the activities of Hafiz Saeed.
Mr Zardari seems to have given a non-committal response.
Predictably, the president spoke of Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek – three areas where the two countries dispute control.
It was important for both leaders to assure their publics that “core” issues had been flagged. That both agreed to a step-by-step approach to resolve them only indicates the limited potential of this high-level conversation in Delhi to break new ground.
This step-by-step resolution of issues has lasted a few decades already and could well last a long time more now that there are question marks about Pakistan’s future stability, the growing Islamisation of sections of its society and the uncertain consequences for itself and the region of its expected over-reach in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.
Mr Singh expressed his appreciation of the steps taken by Pakistan on the trade front.
More could have been said about this positive development in bilateral ties in the statements by the two leaders and the later briefing on their talks by the Indian side.
Why this was not done is not clear. Perhaps Mr Zardari was reluctant because he does not want to be personally associated too much with this initiative which he undoubtedly favours, leaving its positive profiling to his government.
Somewhat surprisingly, the two leaders spoke after their meeting to the press in uncharacteristically subdued terms, with the Indian prime minister speaking laconically of finding practical and pragmatic solutions to the outstanding issues and the Pakistani president being even more bland.
Much has been made in the Indian media about the invitation to Mr Singh to visit Pakistan.
Pakistan is pressing for his visit as that would imply that it has delivered on the terror issue, including the trial of those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack, and that relations between the two countries have been effectively normalised.
Mr Singh wants to go but he wants concrete results that would vindicate his policy of engaging Pakistan despite its recalcitrance on the issue of terrorism, an approach that has many critics in the country.
A premature visit by the prime minister could be highly counter-productive for him personally and for the country. Hence his caution.
In response to Mr Zardari’s reiteration of an invitation to visit Pakistan “soon”, Mr Singh has indicated his readiness to go on a “mutually convenient date”, nuanced to an “appropriate time” in the briefing later by the Indian ministry of external affairs with the added caveat of “mutually acceptable dates” and “substantive preparations” beforehand.
All in all, the visit did not live up to the media hype, but it served its purpose of maintaining high-level engagement with Pakistan in the hope that incremental progress could be made in resolving the difficult issues that bedevil the bilateral relationship.
(Kanwal Sibal is a former Indian foreign secretary and This article was first published in BBC)