External Affairs

Pokhara Prepares for India-Pakistan Sideshow

Even as Indian officials rule out a meeting of foreign secretaries until a Pakistani investigating team visits the site of the Pathankot terrorist attack, both sides have confirmed their foreign ministers will meet

The Pokhara Grande, venue for Saarc ministerial meeting. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

The Pokhara Grande, venue for Saarc ministerial meeting. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Pokhara (Nepal): The Annapurna range remained frustratingly out of sight for the scores of visitors who had landed in the Nepali resort town of Pokhara on the first day of the SAARC inter-summit ministerial meeting on Monday. But while the weather played spoilsport, the parallel India-Pakistan saga came back into focus, with both sides confirming that their foreign ministers will sit down for a formal bilateral during their time at the multilateral event here.

Pakistan’s foreign office announced in Islamabad on Monday afternoon that Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will meet with all SAARC foreign ministers on the sidelines of the ministerial summit on March 17. The official reason was to extend a “formal invitation” to the eight South Asian leaders for the 19th SAARC summit to hosted by Islamabad in November.

Official Indian sources said that after Pakistan sought a meeting between Aziz and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, India readily agreed. The agenda of the meeting would certainly go beyond the invitation, the sources admitted, with both sides expected to raise their pet issues

It was Aziz and Swaraj’s meeting in Islamabad during the Heart of Asia conference last December which began the process for both countries to re-engage formally in a dialogue process. Of course, that meeting too was a direct result of the elaborate shadow play between the two governments which began with the ‘chance encounter’ between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif at the leaders’ lounge during the Paris climate change talks on November 30, which was then followed by discussions in Bangkok between the national security advisers of the two countries on December 6.

As of now, however, the Indian and Pakistan foreign secretaries are not likely to hold a separate meeting of their own on the sidelines at Pokhara – mainly because there is too much political baggage riding on their much postponed discussions.

 As per New Delhi’s stance, the foreign secretaries will only meet to decide on the calendar for the launch of a new ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ after Pakistan is seen to have taken visible action to hunt down the perpetrators of the January 2 Pathankot Air base attack which left 7 soldiers dead.

A visit of the Special Investigation Team from Pakistan might well provide the Modi government the cover it needs to ward off the opposition charge of not doing enough to press Islamabad to act – and, therefore, continue with the dialogue process. “We are very clear on the sequence of events. First the SIT visit has to take place and only then can the foreign secretaries meet,” said a senior government official.

With the terror track now being dealt with by the NSAs, a meeting between the foreign secretaries with the baggage of Pathankot would have led to a blurring of its mandate as envisioned by the Indian side.

So far, Islmabad has yet to provide dates for the proposed visit of the SIT – suggesting to some observers a slow-down in the momentum which had built up after the filing of a First Information Report by Pakistan’s Punjab provincial police on February 18.

In Pokhara, the shadow of another neighbour

This is, of course, the biggest diplomatic coming-out party for Pokhara, which had also been in the running for the 2014 SAARC leader’s summit. “But the airport is too small to handle the big aircraft of leaders,” said Deepak Baral, director of Pokhara airport.

That’s why,  Sushma Swaraj is taking an unusual route to reach Nepal’s second largest city, located in the western region.

She will first fly to Gorakhpur near the India-Nepal border and then take a half-hour helicopter flight across the border.

On Monday, Baral was in a relaxed mood in his large office, bracing for the rush that will start from mid-week, when ministers start flying in from all over South Asia.

Their first stop will, of course, be the quaint Pokhara airport, with the red carpet already rolled out till the tarmac. Like some of the smaller airports in India, PKR is so small that there is no baggage carousel. Rather, luggage is hauled to a small outhouse, to be displayed as an array on a bench for travellers to pick out.

The red carpet at Pokhara airport. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

The red carpet at Pokhara airport. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Not only does the airport have the capacity to handle only small planes, it can only operate during daylight hours. “This is a VFR airport, so we run only from sunrise to sunset,” said the young air traffic controller, using the acronym for ‘visual flight rules’.

But with Pokhara’s ambitions fuelled by good reviews from foreign visitors, a larger, new airport has been a long-held desire among the ‘Pokhreli’. And after 40 years of delay due to bureaucratic sloth and political instability, the project is enticingly close to fruition. Next week, Nepal’s prime minister, K.P. Oli likely to sign a $215.96 million loan for financing the airport during his China trip.

But, that many not be the only gift that Oli returns with from Beijing. He is also likely to sign an official agreement on the import of petroleum products with China, formalising a framework deal signed last December.

While the 135 days of border disturbances with India – which the Nepalis term as ‘blockade’ – ended early February, thing are still to return to normality, especially on the fuel supply front.

Visitors may not immediately gauge the problem, with Pokhara’s specially cleaned roads filled with cars, scooters and myriad forms of public transport zipping through the numerous welcome arches. “They are all running on (petrol bought in) black,” said 51-year-old Buddhi Sagar Acharya, who was hanging around with friends in front of his medicine shop as clientele had dwindled after city authorities banned parking on the main avenue.

In Pokhara, petrol pumps get their quota only once a week. “We learn from radio or newspaper that this petrol pump will be open on such a day and then go and line up, one day before,” said Indra Bahdadur, a jewellery shop owner.

The five-star hotel, Pokhara Grande – venue for the Saarc meeting – has stocked up fuel reserves for this week.

“We have enough for the daily use of the hotel, which is about 900 litres of petrol. But, we have kept reserves of 2200 litres for any contingency. The usage goes up once power goes away, and then we need fuel to run the generator and the broilers,” explained Dhruv Sharma, assistant front office manager at the hotel.

When this correspondent asked Pokhara residents if they felt anger towards India for the difficulties of the past month, there was a reticence, perhaps due to politeness. “They say that Madhesis were at the border stopping the supply. The real culprit are the Madhesi leaders,”

But some shared their sense that India had not played fair. “It seemed that India was helping only one side. Saying that, I was also feeling very angry with our politicians. Why hasn’t Nepal developed all these years? It is difficult to forget those days (of fuel shortage). It messed up our personal lives,” said Bahadur.