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Singh to Visit Pakistan After ‘Constructive’ Talks With Zardari

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister. Singh’s government has asked its companies to increase dividends and buy back shares for the first time. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to visit Pakistan following “constructive” talks with President Asif Ali Zardari, as the leaders pledged to resolve their differences and normalize relations between the countries.

“We are willing to find practical and pragmatic solutions to all those issues and that is the message President Zardari and I would wish to convey,” Singh said in statement in New Delhi yesterday after a half-hour-long meeting. Zardari described the talks as “very fruitful.”

This is the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state in seven years, as the countries build on a peace process that resumed last year. Singh took advantage of Zardari’s private religious pilgrimage trip to Rajasthan city of Ajmer, to hold bilateral talks.

“I would be very happy to visit Pakistan on a mutually convenient date,” Singh said. “The relations between India and Pakistan should become normal. That’s our common desire.”

Singh’s visit to Pakistan would be the first by an Indian head of government since January 2004, when former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Islamabad for talks with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Singh, 79, was born in present-day Pakistan.

The nuclear-armed nations have in recent months agreed to boost trade, expand travel across their frontier in divided Kashmir and grant more business visas as they normalize economic ties. Peace talks, derailed by the November 2008 terrorist strike on Mumbai by Pakistani gunmen that killed 166 people, restarted in February 2011.

Substantive Issues

“It’s a reasonably satisfactory visit because the Pakistani president is not in a position to really deliver any substantive issues to India,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, an analyst at New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, a research group. “We will have to see how talks between officials of both sides progress and particularly how the Pakistani military deals with the central issue of support to terror groups.”

Zardari, 56, told Singh that all issues that divide the countries, including the dispute over Kashmir, control over the Siachen glacier and disputes over the Sir Creek maritime borders, need to be addressed, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, told reporters in New Delhi yesterday. “Both felt that we need to move forward step-by-step.”

Pakistan’s Cabinet in March approved a proposal to remove restrictions on the import of most items from India by December.

During the talks, Singh asked Zardari to take action against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group that India and the U.S. have blamed for carrying out the strike in Mumbai, Mathai said. That issue will be a key factor to judge progress in bilateral relations, the Foreign Secretary said.

$10 Million Reward

The U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for help in arresting Saeed, who continues to address public rallies, increasing its pressure on Pakistan to move against the prominent politician and Islamic militant leader.

A day before Zardari’s visit, an avalanche struck a military post in the Siachen region burying 135 people and underscoring the cost of the countries’ rivalry in what is called the world’s highest battlefield. Pakistan’s army said 124 soldiers were among those buried in the avalanche. Singh offered his guest humanitarian help for the victims, Mathai said.

The Mumbai attack shattered a dialogue that over five years had increased cross-border trade and strengthened transport and cultural links. Zardari became president in September 2008, replacing military leader Pervez Musharraf, who had visited India three years earlier for talks in New Delhi and a cricket match.

New Negotiation Energy

While Singh and Zardari have tried to inject new energy to negotiations, both men have been damaged by controversies at home.

Singh’s administration has been assailed by opposition parties and allies over efforts to open the economy to more foreign investment. Alleged government corruption triggered street protests last year and contributed to defeats in recent regional elections.

Zardari, too, has been fighting on several fronts. His prime minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, is on trial for contempt in Pakistan’s high court for refusing to order the reopening of Swiss graft charges against the president.

In separate hearings, the country’s top judges are probing claims that Zardari sought U.S. assistance in May to ward off a feared military coup in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing in an army garrison town by American special forces.

Pakistan was carved out of India at independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Since then the countries have fought three wars, two of them over the divided territory of Kashmir, and several skirmishes.

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