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India, Pak Foreign Secys to meet on Jan 15

India and Pakistan appear all set to fast-track bilateral talks with the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries likely to meet on January 15 in Islamabad.

Though there was no official announcement to this effect, sources said that Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar will travel to Islamabad to hold talks with Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs. The meeting will discuss modalities of bilateral comprehensive dialogue which was announced during the visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad earlier this month.

The news comes in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Pakistan on Friday. The Prime Minister took everyone by surprise on Friday when he announced around noon that he would make a brief stopover in Lahore on his way back to New Delhi from Kabul to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who celebrated his birthday on December 25.

While exact details of the meeting have not been disclosed, it was reported that the duo agreed to open ways for peace for the “larger good” of the people of the two countries.

However, India on Friday, was quick to deny suggestions that PM Narendra Modi’s meeting with his counterpart was anything but an “impromptu” courtesy meeting on Sharif’s birthday. It was also the wedding day of his granddaughter.

It was the presence of steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal in Lahore which set tongues wagging about a possible back channel which may have been activated to make the meeting possible. Jindal shot into the limelight after a TV journalist mentioned in her book his role as a conduit in facilitating a meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit last year in Kathmandu.

Soon after Modi tweeted his decision to travel to Lahore, Jindal tweeted about his presence in the city for the wedding. MEA had officially denied any meeting between Sharif and Modi in Kathmandu.

Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s decision to travel to Pakistan a few days ago is also being seen as an indicator that the Pakistan authorities had some inkling of an impending high-level engagement between the two countries.

Even before the two PMs met in Paris, it was Basit’s meeting with Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor (NSA), which convinced India that Islamabad was looking for a serious engagement with India. Jindal arrived in Lahore in a chartered aircraft with his wife on Friday. He is said to have tremendous influence over Sharif, as evident from the latter’s decision to attend a tea party at Jindal’s residence when he came to India in May last year.

According to reports, sources said the two sides had been in touch to arrange the meeting for a few days. Indian officials are said to have confirmed to the Pakistanis on Thursday that Modi was going to call up Sharif around 11.30 am from Kabul. That it was Sharif’s birthday would evidently ensure Modi’s call did not seem extraordinary. Indian High Commission officials, however, seemed to have been unaware of the meeting. Indian High Commissioner just managed to make it to Lahore.

However, the surprise visit was described by many as a diplomatic masterstroke, while the Congress party dubbed it as “ridiculous” and “bizarre”. Slamming the Congress, Union Environment minister Prakash Javadekar criticised its “mean mindedness.”

He said: “When the whole world has appreciated this move; this kind of informal attitude and the warmth of the visit which will be beneficial to the country in the longer run, the rhetoric of Congress shows its mean mindedness.” He further added: “The way Prime Minister Modi, yesterday (Friday) gave new example of innovative diplomacy, which might have surprised the Opposition but it will benefit both the nations.”

BJP leader Sidharth Nath Singh also slammed the Congress for levelling baseless charges against Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif, saying, “they don’t have content in their allegations”.

Earlier this month, India and Pakistan had agreed to resume bilateral talks and rename them as Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Islamabad for an Afghan conference and held talks with the top Pakistani leadership.

The peace process was set in motion when the Prime Ministers of the two countries met in Paris on November 30 on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference which was followed by the National Security Advisers’ meeting in Bangkok a week later. Later, the External Affairs Minister visited Pakistan to attend Heart of Asia Conference. 
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