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IndoPak: Back to square one at Singh's lunch with Zardari


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) shakes hands with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New Delhi on April 8, 2012. President Asif Ali Zardari became the first Pakistani head of state since 2005 to visit South Asian neighbour India, for a one-day trip aimed at building goodwill between the nuclear-armed rivals.



Amid all the hoopla about the potential "normalization" of relations between India and Pakistan surrounding Sunday's lunch between Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, a lot of people got carried away and forgot one fundamental truth.

We're already experiencing "normal" India-Pakistan relations. Even a shooting war would be semi-normal. What we're actually talking about is the two countries finally deciding to bury the hatchet after 65 years of strife -- a fantasy.

Yes, it was "symbolic" that Zardari visited a sufi shrine in Ajmer -- the message being that South Asia's version of Islam was at one time more liberal and syncretic than the Wahabbi style that has steadily encroached on believers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, yes, it was nice that 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi got to meet 20-something Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (the son of the president and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto) -- though it was obviously a meaningless photo-op.

Practically speaking, however, all that Singh and Zardari accomplished was to get back to square one.  And that's being optimistic. 

Singh agreed to visit Pakistan (theoretically), suggesting that the two leaders' private conversation had generated some concrete offer of "deliverables" from the meeting, as I discussed in my curtain raiser for GlobalPost.  But no date was set.

The relaxation of visa restrictions on travel between the two countries was given the green light, which will facilitate various "people to people" contacts, and the inevitalbe endless reams of copy about how Indians are discovering they love contemporary Pakistani art and suchlike.

But in almost every other way these talks might have been taking place in 2009, or even 1999.

The headline from Monday's Times of India, which reads, "PM Talks Terror, Zardari Harps on K-word," says it better than Reuters or the New York Times could.  No matter how much we might talk about trade and confidence building measures and people to people contacts, India-Pakistan relations boil down to two issues:

India wants Pakistan to act against terrorist groups using its soil as a base to attack India (with the support of Pakistani intelligence, India claims).  And Pakistan wants to "address" the Kashmir issue, which one can only assume means redrawing the international borders rather than sticking with the current Line of Control. 

In other words, nothing much has changed since 1999.