NEW DELHI - In the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state in seven years, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India on Sunday expressed a mutual desire to improve relations between their rival South Asian nations.
Singh also announced that he would at some point visit Pakistan for the first time since taking office.
The meeting was not a formal summit, and diplomats tried to tamp down expectations. Zardari had originally requested to make a private visit to an important Muslim religious site, the Ajmer Sharif shrine, in Rajasthan state. Singh then invited him to make a detour to New Delhi for lunch.
The diplomatic choreography ended with Zardari arriving in New Delhi. The two men met for 40 minutes at Singh’s official residence and discussed a range of issues, including the disputed region of Kashmir and the Pakistani militant Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who is accused of directing the 2008 militant attacks in Mumbai that stopped a potential thawing between the countries.
The Indian and Pakistani leaders also voiced support for expanding trade ties and agreed to liberalize visa restrictions to allow ordinary citizens to move more easily between the countries.
The question now is how soon Singh will be able to visit Pakistan, a trip that many analysts regard as instrumental if the two countries are to achieve any major diplomatic breakthroughs.
Since taking office nearly eight years ago, Singh has often voiced a desire to visit Pakistan, but he has yet to make the trip, either because of political considerations at home, or because of fraught relations between the two countries.
“I am very satisfied with the outcome of the visit,’’ Singh said during a short public appearance with Zardari after their meeting. “President Zardari has also invited me to visit Pakistan. I would be very happy to visit Pakistan at a mutually convenient date.’’
Zardari described their meeting as a “fruitful’’ one in which “all topics’’ were discussed.
The two leaders “hope to meet on Pakistan soil very soon,’’ he added.
India and Pakistan, whose relationship holds the key to peace and stability in South Asia, have been engaged in fitful efforts to make diplomatic progress since November 2008, when the Mumbai attacks killed at least 163 people.
India immediately broke off talks; it remains unsatisfied with Pakistan’s commitment to pursuing the case. In particular, Indian security officials want to see Pakistan take action against Saeed, who is described as the leader of the militant group thought to be behind the attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Ranjan Mathai, the Indian foreign secretary, said the two leaders had discussed Saeed during their meeting.
“President Zardari said the matter needed to be discussed further,’’ Mathai said, adding that the Indian home secretary and the Pakistani interior secretary would discuss Saeed at an upcoming meeting.