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India's prime minister pushes for stronger ties, dialogue with Pakistan

The nations' longtime distrustful relationship was made worse by the Mumbai attacks. But Manmohan Singh says many on both sides crave peace. Plus, the U.S. wants Pakistan to focus on internal strife.

July 30, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday faced down critics who have charged his government with selling out to Pakistan, arguing that engagement is the best option provided it's accompanied by similar good-faith measures by Pakistan and a stronger Indian anti-terrorism capability.

Singh's newly reelected government has come under fire from political opponents and the nation's hyperactive broadcast media after the two wary neighbors pledged to improve ties this month on the periphery of a developing-nations conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Singh's hourlong presentation in parliament came a little more than a week after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that was aimed at reducing tensions between the longtime adversaries. The U.S. wants Pakistan to concentrate on fighting insurgents on its territory, particularly along its porous western border with Afghanistan, rather than focusing on India to the east.

"I believe there's a large constituency for peace in both countries," said Singh, dressed in a blue turban, black vest and white shirt. "I believe it's as much Pakistan's interest as it is ours."

But he also said India must protect itself by bolstering its maritime, anti-terrorism and policing capabilities. He urged Pakistan to bring those behind the November terrorist attacks in the Indian financial hub of Mumbai to justice and to do everything possible to prevent it from happening again, warning that relations would not weather another such crisis.

The Mumbai assault by Pakistani-based terrorists, which killed 166 people, derailed a fragile process launched in 2004 aimed at resolving tensions between the neighbors, including a long-standing dispute over Kashmir. The two countries, both nuclear-armed, have fought three wars over Kashmir and other issues since 1947.

In a poke at the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which accused him of selling out, Singh noted that the party had engaged with Pakistan when it was in power despite alleged terrorist attacks against India.

Pakistani leaders have gone further than ever before, Singh said, by formally briefing Indian officials on the results of an investigation, acknowledging that Pakistanis were involved in a terrorist act and handing over a 34-page dossier on the Mumbai plotters.

Pakistani analysts said intelligence sharing is among the most promising outcomes of the renewed dialogue. However, some bristle over Indian charges that Islamabad is not doing enough to fight terrorists. Pakistan recently put five men on trial in connection with the Mumbai attacks.

Indian leaders counter that Pakistan should arrest and prosecute Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group that authorities say masterminded the Mumbai attacks. Saeed was released from house arrest in June on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Indian analysts credited Singh with a solid, statesman-like presentation and acknowledged that engagement is important. But several made it clear that distrust across the shared border remains deep.

"Singh is an effective speaker," said K. Subrahmanyam, a strategic affairs analyst. "But there's a culture of untruth linked to Pakistan. They're only taking advantage of us."

Singh was accused of moving too slowly a few years ago when then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf showed interest in improving ties. Singh wasn't strong enough politically to push through a deal at the time, said Salman Haider, an analyst and former Indian foreign secretary. Musharraf has since stepped down.

But bolstered by a stronger postelection mandate and a well-received U.S.-India nuclear agreement, Singh may now have more interest in a deal as part of a bid to bolster his legacy, Haider said.

In his speech Wednesday, Singh essentially asked Indian voters to take a leap of faith without knowing the outcome, including whether there would be another attack linked to Pakistan and whether Pakistan would really crack down on insurgents, said Manoj Joshi, commentary editor with the Mail Today newspaper in New Delhi. "He's put out his own political capital on this," he said.

Among the tangible benefits that Singh said would result from better ties were increased trade, travel and development opportunities.

Shaqeel Qalander, a furniture maker on the Indian side of divided Kashmir, said business links are the best way to spur confidence between the wary neighbors.

Last year, the two sides signed a deal allowing 21 items, including furniture, to cross the so-called Line of Control dividing Kashmir, but the agreement was derailed by the Mumbai attacks.

"So far, I haven't sold any furniture, but I'm hopeful," Qalander said. "Unless buyers and sellers meet frequently, how can you build trust?"

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad and Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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