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Seema Mustafa is the former Political Editor and Delhi Bureau Chief of The Asian Age newspaper.

Singh, Gilani replay old charade in Mohali

Border Security Force soldiers and Pakistani Rangers (left) come face to face during the daily retreat ceremony on the India-Pakistan border in Wagah on Tuesday. PTI

here is a certain sameness, perhaps a sort of déjà vu, whenever these Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan get together. Manmohan Singh with his expressionless face and Yousaf Raza Gilani looking bored out of his wits. They shake hands, mouth the same platitudes and return insisting things are better than they were before, and the meeting was great, the hospitality warm and the food delicious.

Correction: "great" is not a word in use in either of the two foreign offices, "cordial" is more like it. And unfortunately, they rarely talk about the food, sad because if they did it would certainly be of more interest than the endless repetitions signifying nothing.

Perhaps one has just got cynical going through endless India-Pakistan efforts to make up that usually come to nought. The leadership of both countries has this tremendous ability to forget even immediate history, and whenever they meet after a longish period of time, or when governments change, the tendency is to start anew. The result is that the herculean effort to cross even a few bridges is washed away, and both go back to the starting point to start yet all over again. So right now it seems that while all the hugs and kisses were meant to herald a start, this will not take into account the headway made a few years ago when actually some dramatic steps such as opening the border between the two Kashmirs, and beginning trade on that route were taken.

o where are we now, precisely, at this point? After hurling insults and accusations, both India and Pakistan broke bread together again. Their home secretaries also met and we are told that a little more than before was discussed. Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. The fine print of the meeting seemed to suggest that they did not stick to rigid positions but continued to talk around, and that perhaps in the obstacle India-Pakistan path can be taken as positive. It has also been announced that the talks will continue, the foreign secretaries will meet, so will the foreign ministers and who knows the bonhomie might last and the phase will end the long delayed, never happening, visit of Prime Minister Singh to Islamabad. One would suggest that he goes there now, strike while the iron is hot as it were, or he might just end his term without the promised visit amidst spotlights.

The officials will all meet again, discuss the same things, talk of the confidence building measures, many of which while agreed to, have not been implemented (and those implemented have not survived), and re-discuss Siachen, Sir Creek and waffle over Kashmir. What new ground has been broken? What new agenda has been set? First both governments create conditions where talks seem impossible, then they meet and hail the meeting itself as a major achievement. The media jumps around excitedly, chattering incessantly over a non event, where the drama overtakes the substance to a point where no one seems to remember that India-Pakistan relations need to be grounded and rooted. The on and off camaraderie can disappear again as suddenly as it appeared at the Mohali cricket stadium. It is time we realised, as do the mandarins opposed to improving relations, that instant meetings are as tasteless as instance coffee, with just a short lived caffeine kick.

Perhaps Singh and Gilani have worked out some details of how to take the talks forward. And have decided on mutual steps so that the pace can be increased to accommodate genuine concerns and issues. But then again, as seems more likely at this stage, they are keeping their fingers crossed happy that they have at least been able to break the ice and give their blessings to the dialogue. For Pakistan, clearly, it was business as usual after Gilani returned from Mohali with a suicide attack on Maulana Fazlur Rehman who survived, although others were killed and injured at the spot in Peshawar. A grim reminder in the haze of optimism that the reality lay not in Mohali but elsewhere.

If this round fails, simply because it has not been properly conceived and no one is there to hold and direct the talks tightly, it will add further injury to the already wounded limping peace process. And this is the real worry. Both Gilani and Singh are at best paper tigers. Do they have the ability to turn the dialogue into a possibility? And that too without thought and preparation? The question, or should one say the answer, does not inspire confidence.

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