External Affairs

No Walk in the Woods Just Yet for Indian, Pakistani Foreign Secretaries

With Pathankot to Pokhara proving a road too far for the two countries, will Washington at the end of the month be where the bilateral journey will finally begin?

Clever seating by SAARC's Nepali hosts ensured the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan sat at the same high table but far enough to ensure there was no "dialogue". Credit: Special Arrangement

Clever seating by SAARC’s Nepali hosts ensured the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan sat at the same high table but far enough to ensure there was no “dialogue”. Credit: Special Arrangement

Pokhara (Nepal): They came, greeted each other and sat around a table of 20 where the group conversation centred around cricket.

On Tuesday night, the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries, S Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary came face-to-face publicly for the first time since their planned meeting in January was cancelled, but it was just for an exchange of pleasantries at the dinner hosted by the Nepali foreign secretary at the five-star Pokhara Grande hotel.

Jaishankar and Chaudhary were not seated next to each other, so they only took part in the general discussion at the high table which centred around cricket, T20 and how the visitors managed to get a glimpse of Nepal in between their official schedule.

The Indian FS likely shared details of his tour of the beautiful Phewa lake, which he visited just after landing in Pokhara at around 4 p.m. He took a turn around the lake with its blue-green waters and thickly forested banks for around an hour.

And before he left the boat, he stood alone for a moment to take a photo of the orange setting sun.

While Jaishankar enjoyed his boat ride, Chaudhary, who arrived from Kathmandu in a Nepali army helicopter, remained inside the hotel, the distance between the two diplomats well choreographed to avoid a chance encounter and, heaven forbid, a walk in the woods.

More than an invitation, less than dialogue

This was also, perhaps, the only time for relaxation in their frenetic schedule. From Wednesday morning, both will take part in the day-long deliberations of the standing committee at the four-day SAARC inter-summit ministerial meeting.

As expected, there will be no formal meetings between Jaishankar and Chaudhary – except perhaps the latter likely conveying his condolences to the former for India’s defeat at the hands of New Zealand during a tea break.

Phewa lake, Pokhara, Nepal. Credit: Mike Behnken/Flickr CC BY-ND-2.0

Phewa lake, Pokhara, Nepal, where senior SAARC officials in town for their big meeting get to unwind. Credit: Mike Behnken/Flickr CC BY-ND-2.0

The wait is now for external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy advisor to Pakistan’s prime Minister, to sit down in a room at the hotel. All indications are that the agenda will certainly go beyond the mere formal handing over of an invitation card for the 19th SAARC summit.

So far, no time has been set for the meeting, with officials keeping options on both the evening of March 16, as well as the next day. A lack of clarity about when Aziz will actually reach Pokhara is the reason that the timing has not yet been decided, said sources.

With Pakistani action against the perpetrators of terror attack on the Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot the main issue for India,  the Indian effort at the foreign ministers’ meeting will be on obtaining some assurance from the Pakistani side on the movement ahead on the investigations.

The specially-constituted Joint Investigation Team by Pakistan has still to visit India. This is the necessary step, according to New Delhi, for the two FSs to meet and put their stamp on a prospective calendar of meetings under the newly christened but still unborn ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue.’

Not same-old, same-old

Indian officials believe that the delay in Pakistan giving dates for the JIT visit is due to the fact that it has not yet completed its own investigation based on leads provided by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to his Pakistani counterpart Naseer Khan Janjua.

Pakistan, on its part, has publicly said that the top diplomats should meet as early as possible.

Though this seems like so much deja vu, Indian officials have stressed repeatedly that the post-Pathankot response by both New Delhi and Islamabad is not the same old script.

If Pakistan has not instinctively denied that the terrorists were from its sides of the border, India has kept open channels for regular interaction. The two communication tracks at the NSA and FS-levels mean that both countries continue to talk to each other – and not through the media, as was a regular feature during previous periods of tension, including as recently as August 2015.

Reports about Pakistan tipping India off about 10 terrorists having sneaked across the border seem to be part of this narrative. Similarly, media reports on Tuesday about three of these terrorists being killed in western India is part of the political projection that the Modi government’s Pakistan policy is substantially different and result-oriented compared to that of the UPA regime.

If Pokhara is too far, DC is near

The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers will also be together in the same room, as well as other world leaders, for the fourth and last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on March 31. Even as speculation is rife that Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif will find time for a meeting on the sidelines, it is learnt that the summit schedule devised by the hosts is extremely tight. In many of the sessions, leaders will often be alone, with no officials on their side

But a heavy timetable is unlikely to deter Modi and Sharif from sharing notes. Their encounter in Paris on November 30, 2015 which led to the decision to begin the new bilateral dialogue process, lasted for less than 10 minutes.