Pakistan’s Zardari: a little bit Pakistani and a little bit Indian

November 26, 2008

“There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani in every Indian and I speak today as a Pakistani, as much as the little Indian in me”- Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari quoting his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto.

Words spoken straight from the heart, and directly to the millions of families on either side of the border,  mine included, with common customs, language and roots until severed by Partition into two nations, two people unable or unwilling to live at peace with each other ever since.

 Zardari was addressing a conference in New Delhi via videolink where he also unveiled a proposal to commit his smaller nation to a no first use nuclear policy, highlighted in an earlier post on this blog.

But he also spoke about making it easy for people to travel to each country, perhaps with some kind of an electronic card.  Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also proposed visa free travel between the two countries, an idea so daring given the tortured India-Pakistan relationship in which most of us grew up up thinking the other to be enemy number 1, that it has been quietly allowed to languish.

But what of India ? Is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one of those whose ancestral home falls on the other side of the border, up to it ?

So far Zardari seems to have made most of the moves beginning with a declaration that insurgents fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir – who were backed by the Pakistani establishment for the last 15 years – were terrorists.

Singh, by contrast has been decidedly low-key, choosing to let the bureaucracy control the pace of normalisation rather than going for a bold gamble of which only a politician is capable.

The Indian leader, as foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan  says, has been hesitant to even make a visit to Pakistan, despite invitations from both the military and civilians governments in Islamabad.

What a contrast to his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Hindu nationalist-led coalition from whom he inherited the peace process.

Vajpayee got onto the first bus service to Lahore, only to be surprised by the Kargil war three months later. Two years later he invited General Pervez Musharraf to Agra and that summit too ended in spectacular failure. It still didn’t stop him from making a final overture in 2003, ending in a visit to Islamabad the following year to launch the peace process that has made fitful progress since. 

The question now is whether the Congress party really has the courage to take forward the peace process or must it await the return of the BJP to make the big breakthrough, says Raja Mohan.

The Foreign Ministers of the two countries are meeting this week  and when you hear them say they are trying to “”reduce the trust deficit” you can expect only incremental progress. 

Singh’s time is running out with elections due by May next year. Is he going to seize the opportunity provided by Zardari and break new ground or choose the familiar, and let diplomats do the talking as they have done for more than half a century with little to show for.


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