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Swaraj may visit Islamabad for Afghan talks

03 December 2015

In a move that could potentially mark the resumption of high-level contacts between the foreign offices of India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided in principle to send external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad for an 8 December multilateral meeting on Afghanistan.

Pakistan extended a formal invitation to Swaraj three weeks ago for the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process - a 14-nation initiative dedicated to regional cooperation in Afghanistan - but Modi was undecided on whether to send Swaraj to Islamabad or peg India's participation at a junior level.

In the aftermath of the failed National Security Advisers-level talks between India and Pakistan in August, the NDA government has adopted a policy of not encouraging bilateral meetings or contacts between the two sides on any subject other than terrorism. Since India was represented at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Beijing in October 2014 by junior foreign minister V K Singh, the prime minister's office feared deputing Swaraj to Islamabad might send a wrong signal to the Pakistani side that New Delhi was ready to engage again. In the absence of any concession from Islamabad, this was something Modi was reluctant to do.

However, his brief but warm chat with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on the opening day of the COP21 climate change event in Paris on 30 November appears to have paved the way for a rethink.

For now, all that senior South Block officials are prepared to say is that Swaraj will likely be attending the Islamabad meeting, joining ministers and envoys from the other 12 other countries which are part of the Heart of Asia process and the 17 which are ''supporting countries'' in discussing ways to help Afghanistan.

But, once Swaraj is there, it is more than likely that she will meet with her counterpart, Sartaj Aziz.

Aziz, who was recently divested of the charge of National Security Adviser, remains Foreign Policy Adviser to Sharif and is Pakistan's de facto foreign minister. Pakistan's NSA is Lt Gen (Retd) Nasir Khan Janjua.

Swaraj's impending visit also assumes significance in the light of the upcoming Saarc summit, which Pakistan is scheduled to host in January 2016. The joint statement issued by India and Pakistan after the Ufa prime ministerial meeting in July 2015 noted that Modi had accepted Sharif's invitation to attend the summit.

Until today, prospects for the Saarc summit were seen in the region as receding in the face of India's refusal to engage Pakistan except in the singular dimension of terrorism. The challenge for Modi was that he had said South Asia and Saarc would be a priority for his foreign policy and if the summit were postponed essentially because of the ongoing Indo-Pakistan standoff, this would compromise his own explicit regional agenda.

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