When Will Singh Come?

No Indian prime minister or president has visited Pakistan since 1998. In contrast, top Pakistani leaders have visited India five times since. What will it take to get India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to cross the border?

Neighboring families too do not cross each other's household without reciprocity. And if bad blood exists, fie to the one who over-fraternizes. For 15 years, Pakistan has repeatedly sent its leaders over, while India has been wallowing in petulance.

1998's nuclear blasts shook the world, a storm foreseen neither by India nor Pakistan. In this surcharged atmosphere, then-prime ministers Vajpayee and Sharif pulled the peace bunny out of their hats. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan, the last one hazarded by an Indian leader, to break the ice.

Sharif was deposed in Pakistan, in part for welcoming Vajpayee. Enter Musharraf, who beckoned by the mantle of statesmanship came to Agra in India in 2001. Legitimacy from an enemy leads to hope of all sorts of noble prizes. Days before his visit, Musharraf shed the strange title of chief executive, and donned the president's regalia. Vajpayee phoned him immediately, apparently becoming the first foreign leader to address him as Mr. President.

The Agra summit went nowhere, but Musharraf was back in India in 2005, ostensibly to see a cricket match between the two countries. By now, the clamor was rising in Pakistan for his host, Manmohan Singh, to become a guest. Conditions were conducive, with a potential solution to Kashmir taking shape, but just then Musharraf started losing his grip on power.

Came the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and public opinion in India became hostile to any border crossing. But Musharraf's replacements recognized in Singh a man of peace. Singh's confidence grew unbounded when he won reelection in 2009, so much so that he promised Pakistan that India's role in Pakistan's state of Balochistan was up for discussion. He was being transparent, but India's polity, and more significantly his Congress party's leader, Sonia Gandhi, were up in arms for what they felt was a transgression of authority.

Pakistan realized that Singh was hemmed in. To make progress, they would have to engage directly with Gandhi. During the cricket world cup of 2011, Singh suddenly invited both Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, and PM Gilani. A cat was set among the pigeons within Pakistan, and after frantic discussions, it was decided to send Gilani, but only after receiving the assurance that he would get to meet Gandhi. And in his post-summit comments, he highlighted her support for peace.

By now, the situation was getting embarrassing for Pakistan. It virtually implored Singh to come, if only to visit a Sikh shrine or his ancestral village, but he kept accepting the invitations only to put them into cold storage. What further galled Pakistan's political leadership was that Singh had reportedly established direct contact with Pakistan's army chief, General Kayani. Just as Pakistan had realized that to get things done, they must talk to Gandhi, so too India had accepted the primacy of the Pakistani military.

What a tangle this was. The two paramount leaders, Gandhi and Kayani, could not talk, let alone meet, while lesser leaders could only pirouette as marionettes. Still, all credit to the latter for keeping up pretenses.

Last year, an embattled Zardari embarked on a last-ditch effort to mend fences. No cricket matches were taking place, nor was India extending an official welcome, so Zardari took the religious route. Opposition within Pakistan was thereby scotched, and Singh had no option but to host him with appropriate protocol. Polite noises were made during their meeting, but other than spiritual munificence, Zardari went home empty-handed.

He must have found his travels fruitful though, for he has just sent his prime minister, Raja Ashraf, on an identical journey. This, just after the killings of soldiers along the line of control had precipitated tensions, which many in Pakistan, and even a few in India, believe to be a molehill made into a mountain by India. Ashraf's chutzpah must have stunned the Indians, who were alternating between bouts of self-pity and belligerence. His divine intentions though left them with no alternative. He however was denied face time with Singh or Gandhi.

India must have factored in that Zardari and Ashraf's party's chances of reelection in Pakistan's forthcoming elections were slim, and that it should wait and see how Pakistan's polity pans out. But Singh's government too is beleaguered. It is no secret that to retrieve his legacy, Singh seeks some kind of breakthrough with Pakistan, and has veered Gandhi to his point of view.

Why then does Singh refuse to go to Pakistan? A grand welcome awaits him, and in case he wants to douse expectations or neutralize opposition at home, he could always go under the garb of spiritualism or ancestry. In the tortuous, and tortured, history of Indo-Pakistani relations, his visit would serve as a positive marker. It would also alleviate Pakistan's aggrievedness.

2014 is approaching, by when Nato would have almost quit Afghanistan. If the new Afghan army can stand up to the Taliban, then India holds a trump card, but in case the Taliban prevails, India will be on the back foot. Its $2 billion investment in Afghanistan stands to go up in smoke. Frankly, if Nato could not get the better of the Taliban, what are the chances of the Afghan army? Rather than wait for the Afghan denouement, should not Singh seize the initiative and visit post-election Islamabad? India is still on a fairly strong wicket vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and might find Islamabad more malleable now than later. Timing is everything, be it in diplomacy or cricket.