Sharif to Sushma: Your Urdu is better

Sharif to Sushma: Your Urdu is better

By: || Updated: 12 Dec 2015 12:18 PM
New Delhi: For a few moments late on Wednesday afternoon, diplomats in foreign minister Sushma Swaraj's delegation in Islamabad sat stumped in Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's meeting chamber, as their host lavished unlikely praise on their boss.

Indian and Pakistani diplomats had spent the previous three hours trying to thrash out a short 179-word joint statement - about a minute a word - amid sharp disagreements on the language and the priority terrorism and Kashmir would receive.

They hadn't succeeded fully, and would eventually need to meet again - after Sushma's talks with Sharif and then with his foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz - to arrive at an agreement. And even that agreement would leave their foreign secretaries the task of meeting in January to work out a schedule for future negotiations.

But midway through his conversation with the Indian foreign minister, Sharif prompted almost embarrassed giggles from his guests and his own delegation, cutting through latent tension in the room.

" Aapki Urdu to hamari Urdu se behtar hai (Your Urdu is better than mine)," Sharif told Sushma, as the two leaders switched between four languages - English, Hindi and Punjabi were the others - during a 40-minute conversation. "Meri Urdu mein Punjabi ka influence hai na (My Urdu carries Punjabi influences)."

Sharif's praise was a part of an elaborate, 24-hour charm offensive the Pakistan Prime Minister and his team unleashed on Sushma and her delegation, suggest accounts of two senior Indian officials and a top Pakistani diplomat. The details of the Sushma-Sharif conversation and the intense negotiations that sandwiched it were shared by the diplomats with The Telegraph independently. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to talk about the meetings.

The negotiations on Wednesday ultimately yielded the resumption of a multi-pronged, "comprehensive" dialogue that was suspended three years ago - an outcome that reflects an as-yet-unexplained about-turn by the Narendra Modi government on Pakistan.

Most Indian officials familiar with the negotiations hinted at pessimism within New Delhi over the long-term prospects of a peace agreement that they admit was heavily influenced by international opinion and pressure.

Yet, Sushma's visit to Islamabad - even if the deal she oversaw meets the fate of several past peace attempts - wasn't marked by bitter rancour, but by a sense that Sharif wanted to reach out to India, they said.

Sharif's attention to the Indian delegation, on the margins of what was an international summit - the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan - attended by leaders from 14 nations, was clear on Tuesday night.

An hour after landing in Islamabad, Sushma and the Indian team attended a dinner hosted by Aziz in honour of all delegates attending the Afghanistan conclave.

There, Pakistan had a special vegetarian section for the Indian delegation, and waiters handed entering Indian delegates plates with snacks from north India. The vegetarian fare included Dal Makhani and Palak Paneer.

By Wednesday afternoon though, the familiar pattern of cut-and-thrust diplomacy had returned, as diplomats battled over what to include in the joint text.

The neighbours had effectively agreed, at the meeting of their national security advisers in Bangkok last Sunday, to resume what was originally called a composite dialogue - including negotiations for a settlement on Kashmir, Siachin, Sir Creek and tensions along the Line of Control.

But in the joint statement Sushma and Aziz would release in Islamabad, India wanted a shared condemnation of terrorism in "all its forms and manifestations" - citing Pakistan's own repeated insistence it was the world's biggest victim of terrorism. Pakistan, aware that such wording could appear as a betrayal of its support to Kashmiri militancy, refused.

Islamabad proposed a mention of the Kashmir dispute separate from the resumption of the "comprehensive bilateral dialogue." India refused.

The resumption of cricketing ties - an India-Pakistan series in Sri Lanka was proposed by the cricket boards of the two nations - ought not to be linked with the diplomatic re-engagement, the two sides decided, putting aside any detailed discussions on the subject.With other, less contentious elements of the text settled, Sushma and her team entered the meeting with Sharif.

There, a chatty Pakistan Prime Minister began by recalling Sushma's three-day visit to Islamabad in 2002 as information and broadcasting minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Sharif wasn't in power - he had been removed in a coup by Pervez Musharraf three years earlier.

But the reference to the 2002 visit was a reminder by Sharif of Vajpayee's conviction in peace with Pakistan, and Sushma's past role in those efforts.

Next, he recalled his own childhood visits to India with his father, Muhammed Sharif, an industrialist who built a steel conglomerate the family still controls. He then referred to the visit by his brother Shahbaz, chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab province, in December 2013.

Finally, he spoke of his own visit to Delhi in May 2014 for Modi's swearing-in ceremony, and said the two had developed a rapport since then.

At Sushma's meeting with Aziz, the two delegations agreed to a minimal but strong condemnation of terrorism - agreeing that they were "resolved to cooperate to eliminate it". The wording proposed by India was not accepted - but the two sides agreed to Delhi's proposal for a parallel track of negotiations on terrorism between the NSAs.

They also agreed the foreign secretaries would meet next month to detail a schedule and modalities for talks.

The Indian team wasn't returning with the agreement it would have ideally liked. But when she boarded her plane to return to Delhi that night, Sushma had a smile on her face.

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