New Delhi: Officially, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is just having a quick lunch with India's leader on his way to visit a Muslim shrine. But Zardari's trip to New Delhi on Sunday marks a milestone in the warming relations between the two neighbours.
Such are the pressures on the nuclear-armed rivals that even as they inch closer together, they cannot be seen as fully embracing.
Zardari can't risk angering Pakistan's hawkish army and its powerful anti-Indian Islamic groups by holding official talks with India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces pressure of his own to keep some distance from Pakistan until it cracks down on anti-Indian militants.
A year ago, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met with Singh during a World Cup cricket match, using the same cover employed in 2005 by then-President Pervez Musharraf for a meeting with Singh during an India-Pakistan cricket match.
The 2005 meeting led to talks on an unprecedented framework for peace between the two countries that later collapsed when Musharraf lost power.
Sanjaya Baru, Singh's former media adviser, praised the informal trips, which allow the leaders to talk without any expectations or pressure to produce results.
"Each such visit and the ensuing dialogue will make it easier for both governments to walk down the road that Singh and Musharraf defined," he wrote in The Indian Express newspaper.
Zardari's trip to New Delhi, the first by a Pakistani head of state since that 2005 visit, is the most visible sign that the rivals have put the enmity that followed the 2008 terror attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai behind them and are working to strengthen economic and political ties.
Zardari is to have lunch with Singh and then head to the revered Ajmer Sharif shrine in India's western state of Rajasthan.
All issues are on the table, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said. But he was not sure how deep the discussion would be.
"After all it's a private visit of Zardari to India. He is coming on a religious mission. I don't know whether they would have time enough to go into details," he said on Friday.
Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said Zardari's visit will help "keep the momentum going."
Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said the lunch will help promote "peace and prosperity in this part of the world, and we are looking forward for a constructive engagement between the two leaders".
Peace efforts collapsed in 2008 when 10 Pakistan-based militants killed 166 people in attacks in Mumbai. India blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group and demanded that Islamabad crack down on them. Just days before Zardari's trip, the United States slapped a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the group's founder, who operates openly in Pakistan, giving anti-India public speeches and appearing on television talk shows.
Relations have slowly improved in recent years, culminating in Pakistan's pledge to give India "most-favored nation" trading status by the end of this year. The World Bank estimates that annual trade could grow to as much as $9 billion from $2 billion if trade barriers are lifted.
Pakistan's commerce minister is visiting India a few days after Zardari's trip to join his Indian counterpart in opening a "Lifestyle Pakistan" expo highlighting fashion, food and arts from India's neighbor.
"I think the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship is looking up. I think there are a number of issues which ought to be resolved and I am sure mutual talks will eventually resolve those issues," External Affairs Minister SM Krishna said.
Singh does not appear ready to reciprocate with his own informal trip to Pakistan—perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, couched in a visit to his boyhood home in the Pakistani village of Gah—unless there is real movement in talks between the two countries.
Singh said that when Gilani asked him last month when he would visit, "I said let us do something solid so that we can celebrate".