Pakistan president to visit India amid warming ties

 This picture taken on July 1, 2011 shows Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari leaving 10 Downing Street in central London.

Story highlights

  • President Asif Ali Zardari will have a private visit with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
  • The neighbors have fought three wars, two of them over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir
  • Talks were suspended in 2008 after a terrorist assault on Mumbai

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is scheduled to visit India on Sunday, the first by a Pakistani head of state in seven years, amid thawing relations between the two nuclear-armed archrivals.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India will host a lunch in honor of Zardari in New Delhi before the Pakistani leader travels to the shrine of a revered Sufi saint at Ajmer in Rajasthan state, officials said.

Zardari's visit Sunday, a private trip, comes in the wake of Pakistan's recent promise to grant India "most favored nation" trading status.

The South Asian neighbors have fought three wars, two of them over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into Islamic Pakistan and Hindu-majority, secular India after independence from Britain.

Last year, both nations pledged not to let their fragile peace process unravel again over the range of thorny issues that put them at odds.

After meeting her Indian counterpart in New Delhi in July, the Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said she believed that "it is the desire and commitment of both the governments to make it an uninterrupted and uninterruptable process."

Their meeting came barely two weeks after three deadly explosions ripped through Mumbai, killing 27 people. The attack revived painful memories of the 2008 terrorist siege in Mumbai, for which India blamed Pakistani-based extremists. Pakistan was quick to condemn the 2011 bombings of Mumbai while New Delhi was careful not to point the finger at Islamabad.

In 2004, the nations agreed to negotiations that cover eight issues, including Kashmir, terrorism and Pakistan's concerns over river dams on the Indian side of the border, which it sees as a threat to its water supplies.

Since then, successive governments have held talks in an effort to end the historical acrimony.

Singh and Zardari hailed results from the dialogue in September 2008 as the countries completed four rounds of diplomatic meetings.

But engagements were suspended two months later in November 2008 after the terrorist assault on Mumbai, which left more than 160 people dead.

Over the past two years, India and Pakistan have held a series of high-level meetings in their bid to put their peace dialogue back on track, a process considered crucial to regional stability ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

In 2011, New Delhi and Islamabad agreed to resume talks.

"It's a win-win situation when Pakistan and India are engaging in dialogue, are talking to each other, and are building better cooperation," Mark Toner, a deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said Thursday regarding Zardari's upcoming India visit.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, who met Singh on the margins of a nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, last month, also invited the Indian leader to his country.

"Zardari has chosen a visit to Ajmer as a reason to be in New Delhi," Sanjaya Baru, Singh's former media adviser, wrote in a column for the Indian Express on Friday.

Baru suggested Singh "could choose a visit to his place of birth, the village Gah, as a good reason to go to Lahore, and maybe even Islamabad."

Singh was born in Gah during British rule over the subcontinent. Today, the village is part of the Pakistani province of Punjab.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf was the last Pakistani president to visit India, in 2005, upon invitation by Singh to watch a cricket match between the two countries.

"Nothing need come out of such visits. No joint statement, no agreements, no final solution. But each such visit and the ensuing dialogue will make it easier for both governments to walk down the road that Singh and Musharraf defined," Baru wrote.

Other observers also said the Sunday lunch meeting between the Indian and Pakistani leaders was encouraging.

"The lunch being hosted by the prime minister for a Pakistani president on a private visit is a welcome step," said Uday Bhaskar, a strategic analyst. "These gestures are in the long-term interest of India and that of the region."