Egypt, Bhutan, Mohali… Changing scenarios as PM, Gilani meet again


Mohali : A cricket stadium packed with Indians and Pakistani is a far cry from the formal confines of a room in a third country. But that was how it was for the prime ministers of the two countries, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, who met Wednesday in Mohali to watch the World Cup semifinal between their two countries.

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It was their third meeting in three years, but the first time that the venue is one of their own countries, rather than in a third nation on the sidelines of a multilateral summit.

The last time the two prime ministers met to try and resolve the fraught relationship was in April 2010 in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

Before that, the two met on July 16, 2009 at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit. This was five months after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attack.

A month earlier, Manmohan Singh met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at Yekaterinburg, where the Indian leader surprised him by speaking about Pakistan’s role against terror, within the earshot of the media.

The Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting proved controversial with the joint statement delinking further talks with Pakistan from the action against terror. Besides, for the first time in a joint statement, it included a reference to Pakistan’s concerns on Balochistan.

This created a furore domestically, with then foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon taking the blame. He had to wait nearly six months before being appointed as National Security Advisor in January 2010.

The hour-long meeting in Thimphu, however, set the momentum for further meetings, including between the foreign ministers in Islamabad.

The foreign secretaries met in Thimphu in 2011, and laid down a timetable of sustained dialogue on subjects ranging from counter-terrorism, water resources and Siachen.

And, a day ahead of both the prime ministers joining their citizens to cheer their teams in Mohali, the home secretaries met in New Delhi Tuesday. They agreed to set up a hotline for real-time information sharing on terrorist threats, even as Indian investigators were allowed to quiz the 2008 Mumbai attack suspects prosecuted in Pakistan.

All that was planned long ago.

However, Wednesday’s meeting between the two prime ministers was virtually impromptu with Manmohan Singh taking the initiative to invite Gilani after India won the quarter final against Australia March 24.

One more instance of what is being labelled “cricket diplomacy” between the two countries – Gen Zia-ul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf earlier travelled to India to watch cricket, an abiding obsession in both countries.