ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - India’s foreign minister travels to Pakistan this week for his first meeting with leaders of a new civilian government and to review a peace process that has been in the doldrums for more than a year.
Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will meet his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on Wednesday, a day after their top civil servants hold talks.
The nuclear-armed rivals launched peace efforts in 2004 after nearly going to war a fourth time after Islamist militant attacks in India linked to a nearly 20-year revolt, which Pakistan sympathizes with, against Indian rule in the Kashmir region.
While ties have warmed, the two sides have made no significant progress on their main dispute over the divided, Muslim-majority Himalayan region they both claim.
A heavy clash on their Kashmir border this month underscored just how tenuous the improvement in relations is.
Analysts in both Pakistan and India said Mukherjee will be sounding out Pakistan’s new leaders and trying to determine who is devising policy.
Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has been the architect of Indian policy since he seized power in a 1999 military coup but February elections brought in a civilian government led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
“The Indians will want to know who is in charge in Islamabad because it’s not clear,” said Riaz Khokhar, a former Pakistani foreign secretary and ambassador to India.
“There are so many centers of power now and where does the president stand? Is he a main player in Pakistan-India relations or is he history?”
Musharraf made a range of ground-breaking proposals to end the Kashmir deadlock that has bedeviled ties since the countries’ independence in 1947.
He offered to give up demands for a plebiscite in Kashmir, as enshrined in U.N. resolutions, if India agreed to autonomy in its part of Kashmir, in effect giving up Pakistan’s claim to the entire region.
But in March last year, Musharraf was engulfed in a political crisis when he tried to dismiss the country’s top judge, distracting attention from India and giving it a handy reason to stall, said another Pakistani analyst.
“Their own dialogue with the Kashmiris is stuck ... there was going to be a slow-down (in the peace process) anyway but then came the Pakistani crisis which became a good excuse,” said another former Pakistani foreign secretary, Tanvir Ahmad Khan.
Some Pakistani critics say Musharraf made too many concessions and the new government should pull back, but Khan said he did not expect the Pakistani side to do that.
“We should look forward to a fairly productive meeting ... with the Pakistani government reaffirming that they stand by whatever Musharraf had agreed to,” said Khan.
India is under no pressure to make concessions on Kashmir and no one is expecting a breakthrough there.
But before the lull in peace efforts, the two sides had made some progress towards settling border disputes, one over the Siachen glacier high in the Himalayas, the other in the far south, over the Sir Creek on their maritime boundary.
But the ministers’ most important achievement might be to set the stage for a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“We should not expect any spectacular results but it may pave the way for a higher meeting and that higher meeting can break the log jam,” Khan said.
India did not accuse Pakistan of links to bombs last week in the city of Jaipur that killed 63 people, which Pakistani analysts said was a sign of maturing relations.
Nevertheless, India would want to know the stand on terrorism of a Pakistani government hoping a peace pact can end violence by al Qaeda-linked militants on its Afghan border.
“Under Musharraf there’s been a reasonable control over infiltration (by militants into Indian Kashmir),” said C. Raja Mohan, an Indian foreign affairs analyst based in Singapore.
“Over the past few weeks there are indications that things are not the same ... The war on terror, what is the new government’s attitude?”
Editing by David Fox