The stalemate in India-Pakistan ties after the public falling out during foreign minister S M Krishna's visit to Islamabad in mid-July last year is likely to end with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani accepting his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh's invitation.
Gilani will see the high-profile clash between India and Pakistan at the World Cup semifinal in Mohali on Wednesday along with Singh with the occasion expected to push the stalled New Delhi-Islamabad dialogue. The "off field" optics could see some gains in official exchanges that have become largely formal acts.
Official sources said the Pakistani PM was not likely to visit New Delhi and would, in all probability, return after seeing the match with Singh. A formal meeting beyond a welcome -- and informal exchanges -- is as yet not scheduled. The cricket is seen to provide the stage to ease "limiting positions" on both sides. It would serve to break the ice.
The view that Singh's move is essentially an "environment enabler" seems to be shared across the border. "The biggest achievement of Manmohan Singh`s gesture is that it has broken the stalemate. At the most, PM Gilani`s visit to India and meeting with his counterpart will help improve the environment for facilitation of talks in future," leading Pakistani analyst Amir Mateen said.
Pakistani officials did not speak of any formal talks.
Indian sources made it clear they will not take their eye off major hurdles like lack of progress in bringing the 26/11 guilty to book, a point likely to be emphasized at the home secretaries' meeting due in New Delhi on Monday and Tuesday. However, the latest Indian initiative may smoothen the atmospherics.
Singh's move is consistent with his view that there is no alternative to engaging Pakistan despite hiccups in ties. He has been careful of the domestic fallout after the much criticized Sharm-el Sheikh initiative where he agreed to an inclusion of a reference to an implied Indian role in Baluchistan, but remains wedded to moving on with Pakistan.
The Indian PM is not likely to lose sight of terrorism as a core area. Even though there is a tendency for ties to suddenly go into a tailspin as it happened in Islamabad last year despite a "positive" meeting between Gilani and Singh at Thimphu in April 2010, the PM is looking to get things started by reengaging the top leadership of the civilian government in Pakistan.
In Islamabad, President Asif Zardari's spokesperson said, "We have welcomed the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and it has now been decided that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will visit India to watch the World Cup cricket semifinal match in Mohali on March 30." He did not say whether the leaders would hold talks on any of the issues that strained relations between the two countries.
The decision that Gilani will watch the India-Pakistan match was taken late on Saturday when the PM met Zardari. It was made public when Pakistan`s home secretary Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, leading a three-member delegation, reached India. Talking to media on the Wagah border, Chaudhry said the hugely popular game of cricket would help promote harmony between the two countries.
"Cricket is vastly popular in both our countries, and anything that has a commonality and is so equally graded on both sides should definitely lead towards further commonality and harmony," he told reporters. The two countries` top officials are due to hold talks on counter-terrorism and a number of other troublesome issues.
The Indian high commission in Islamabad also lauded Gilani`s visit, saying his presence will have a positive impact on India-Pak talks. Sharat Sabharwal, the Indian high commissioner, said Indian embassy was working hard to deal with visa applications.
He said that there was no problem in issuing visas but tickets for the match remained an issue. The visa office was still receiving a large number of applications, he added.