Washington, June 27: The "mix-up" over Sarabjit Singh and Surjit Singh follows a recent pattern in India-Pakistan engagement, where a failed state with a barely functioning government in Islamabad is unable to take even routine decisions.
Pakistan's flip-flop over the release of Indian prisoners who have served out their terms is the fourth such mysterious change of mind within one month by rulers in Pakistan on dealings with India which could have taken their bilateral relations forward.
The first was on May 26 when home secretary R.K. Singh went to Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik with a pre-negotiated draft agreement on allowing group tourism visas between the two countries.
The agreement, which was to have been signed between the home secretaries of the two governments during Singh's visit, would have also facilitated visas on arrival for old people and children and provided for a relaxed visa regime for businessmen as demanded by traders and entrepreneurs on both sides.
According to foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, Singh "had gone there prepared to sign this agreement in accordance with what had been decided when President (Asif Ali) Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had met on April 8".
Mathai added that after the home secretary arrived in Islamabad, India "received this report that the Pakistani side referred to some delays in their procedures as also the desire of their interior minister to have a political level participation at the signing. But we had gone there fully prepared to sign this agreement".
The home secretary was sent to Islamabad by New Delhi in the hope that his visit would produce something tangible on which plans for a visit to Pakistan by external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and later, hopefully, by Manmohan Singh, could be built.
But just as in the case of the latest prisoner release, the government in Pakistan flip-flopped and the home secretary returned home empty-handed, with only vague promises for talks on a bilateral Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) and a hotline between Singh and his counterpart in Islamabad.
The irony in this change of mind by Pakistan is that Zardari had personally committed his country to the idea of a liberalised visa regime agreement as a confidence-building measure when he had met the Prime Minister only a month earlier.
That Pakistan's President is unable to keep his own promise to the Prime Minister is a telling signal on the futility of advancing ties with the existing fragile set-up in Islamabad, notwithstanding an effort to window dress the home secretary-level talks with the prospect of an MLAT.
Hotlines already exist and are functioning between the two sides, one between South Block and Pakistan's foreign ministry and another between the two directors-general of military operations. Yet another hotline will merely enhance the spin of improved relations.
Referring to Pakistan's excuses for not agreeing to a liberalised visa regime, to which it had committed in negotiations that paved the way for the home secretary's trip to Islamabad, the foreign secretary said the following on May 25.
Pakistan's interior minister "had invited our home minister to visit Pakistan, and our home minister had replied saying that he would come as soon as it was convenient. But the visa agreement had to go ahead because it was ready in any case. It had been negotiated and finalised. And both sides attach great importance to having this visa agreement signed. So, we had gone there fully prepared to sign it."
The second flip-flop occurred earlier this month when Pakistan failed to respond to Indian queries about arranging a meeting of the commerce secretaries of both countries. The meeting was planned after the two governments agreed on a series of steps to improve bilateral trade.
India promptly removed restrictions on Pakistani imports through Rajasthan and Punjab, but the government in Islamabad failed to come up with reciprocal steps. Although the two sides had agreed on a timetable of May for an expanded list of items to be traded through the border, so far there has been silence from Pakistan.
Additionally, twice in as many months, Islamabad asked that meetings of groups of experts on electricity and petroleum aimed at an expansion of commerce be postponed.
When defence secretary Shashikant Sharma was in Islamabad a fortnight ago, Pakistan insisted on demilitarisation of Siachen as a pre-condition for pursuing an earlier consensus on authenticating ground lines in the dispute on which a draft agreement between the two sides already exists.
Although this was a third recent flip-flop in bilateral engagement, India is clearly relieved at this particular change of heart in Pakistan. Any progress on the Siachen negotiations could lead to an agreement for an Indian withdrawal from the glacier, for which the UPA government may not have the stomach under existing political conditions.
During Sharma's visit, Pakistan suggested July 19 as the date for a trip by the external affairs minister to Islamabad in the full knowledge that Krishna would not be in a position to travel to Pakistan on that day.
July 19 is voting day in the presidential election, in which Krishna is a voter as a member of Parliament.
Clearly, Pakistan's intention in proposing that date was to give the spin that India turned down a concrete invitation for a foreign minister-level dialogue.
That anti-India elements in Pakistan are prepared to cut their noses to spite their faces became obvious this month when the Pakistani Taliban issued a fatwa against polio vaccination of children. About a month ago, Islamabad had sent a nine-member delegation led by Shahnaz Wazir Ali, its Prime Minister's adviser on polio eradication, to study India's successful experience in this field and to seek co-operation.
On the face of it, the Pakistani Taliban are accusing anti-polio drives across the border as a cover for the activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency, but the timing of the fatwa has raised suspicions that it is a pre-emptive step against any Indian involvement in this health-care effort.
Pakistan is only one of three countries in the world where children continue to be crippled by polio.
Yesterday's flip-flop on the volatile issue of releasing an Indian prisoner convicted of terrorism should not, therefore, come as a surprise.