NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has offered to hold official-level talks with Pakistan, a top Indian government official said on Thursday, signalling a return to bilateral dialogue suspended after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
New Delhi blames the attacks, which killed 166 people, on Pakistan-based militants and wants Islamabad to act against them.
“It is with a positive and open mind that this proposal has been made,” said a top government official requesting anonymity because of the sensitiveness of the subject.
The talks will be held at the level of the top diplomats of the two countries.
“The Indian foreign secretary has invited her Pakistani counterpart to New Delhi. The meeting may take place later this month,” the official said, adding that “terrorism will remain at the core of the discussions”.
Pakistan welcomed the offer.
“There are now signals emanating from India that they are willing to talk bilaterally,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Reuters. “We welcome this ... if it leads to resumption of the composite dialogue.”
Washington sees better India-Pakistan relations as crucial so that Islamabad, not having to worry about its eastern border, can focus on fighting the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been pushing for the resumption of five-year-long peace talks on a range of issues, including the disputed Kashmir region, broken off by India after the attacks.
Until now, Indian and Pakistan officials had met only on the sidelines of multilateral meetings, with New Delhi reluctant either to hold bilateral talks or resume the broader peace process for fear of upsetting public opinion in India.
The offer to resume talks comes ahead of a visit to Pakistan by India’s minister of internal security for a regional meeting this month. Palaniappan Chidambaram’s February 26-27 trip is the first high-level visit since the attacks.
Indian foreign ministry officials said Chidambaram would meet his Pakistani counterpart, Rehman Malik, and other officials for talks that may have a narrow focus on what action Islamabad has taken in regard to the Mumbai attacks.
U.S. pressure apart, India’s willingness for dialogue with Pakistan now could be aimed at boosting the credibility of the civilian government in Islamabad in the face of military hawks in the army and its military intelligence, Indian analysts say.
New Delhi may finally be realising the limitations of its strategy of “coercive diplomacy” as global sympathy for the Mumbai attacks wanes and Western powers press it harder to help stabilise the region by reassuring Pakistan.
Pakistan remains at the forefront of a U.S.-backed battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and its influence with Islamist radicals is seen as key for a new plan to bring peace to Afghanistan that was agreed in London last week.
“India was reviewing its post-Mumbai response, which was to keep things on hold, and see what kind of options it has now,” said Uday Bhaskar, head of New Delhi-based strategic affairs think tank National Maritime Foundation.
“London in a way cleared the perception in India, that whatever we may feel about the culpability of Pakistan, I think the dominant view seems to be that you have to engage with the Pakistanis.”
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad and Matthias Williams in NEW DELHI; Editing by Sugita Katyal