BY a tragic coincidence, President Zardari left for New Delhi just as a wave of grief over the horrific loss of life caused by a mighty avalanche in the army’s encampment in the dizzying heights of Siachen swept across Pakistan.
Zardari had conferred with Gen Kayani the evening before and, in an appropriate division of labour, the general headed for Skardu to take stock of the relief operation under way in the Gayari sub-sector while Zardari went on a journey that highlighted the imperative of peace with India.
The tragedy in Siachen was a reminder that confrontations between the two effectively stalemated South Asian neighbours have been futile. It is a pity that the Indian army blocks the implementation of the Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto accord on disengagement in Siachen. By now, the need for deploying substantial forces in that snow-covered wasteland would have disappeared to mutual advantage.
It is probably academic whether President Zardari’s primary motivation came from the declared intention of prayers and thanksgiving at the shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti or from his perception that, for a whole range of reasons embedded in the state of bilateral relations as well as in his domestic political needs, a conversation with Manmohan Singh could not be delayed further. We know from the past international initiatives of our president that public and private concerns coexist and mingle effortlessly in his case.
In the history of ‘accidental’ summits between India and Pakistan, President Zardari might have done better than the erstwhile leaders of Pakistan. I accompanied Gen Ziaul Haq during his visit to India, undertaken to defuse the crisis on the borders created by Gen Sunderji’s massive Exercise Brass-tacks.
We watched cricket in the Jaipur stadium, went to the same hallowed dargah in Ajmer and, in between, experienced anguished uncertainty if a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi would at all materialise. It did and a revealing comparing of notes by the two leaders, of which I am the sole witness, helped reverse the momentum towards an armed conflict.
The meeting did not, however, open any new doors for enduring reconciliation. As unilateral gestures go, Gen Musharraf’s dash to the rostrum with an outstretched palm to shake the Indian prime minister by hand at a multilateral conference is mostly remembered for its amateurish nature. Zardari’s pilgrimage may produce better results.
Zardari chose Ajmer Sharif as the focal point of his visit to India, a city known for the inclusive magic of a hallowed shrine that is revered by followers of all religions and that permits saints and sinners alike to connect with its abiding spirituality.
One does not know what Manmohan Singh made of Zardari’s Sufi longings but he would not have turned his face away from the secular potential of his presence on the Indian soil.
He organised a warm welcome followed by a lunch in the style of the Great Mughals, even as millions literally starve in the two countries, spoke amiably of the exclusive meeting with the guest, accepted an invitation, for the nth time, to visit Pakistan and generally indulged the Pakistani president in his desire to introduce his own emerging dynasty to the Indian dynasty that created modern India, got interrupted occasionally and now seeks a renewal of its long rule across the bridge provided by his stint as prime minister under Sonia Gandhi’s oversight.
In Pakistan’s fractious political culture, opinions about the dynamics of Zardari’s approach to India will continue to differ. But his readiness to walk an extra mile to replace decades of hostility by an era of cooperation is sound and timely.
The Indian foreign secretary was quick on April 8 to reassure Indian hawks that Manmohan Singh had, indeed, raised the question of Hafiz Saeed; he also clarified that his prime minister would visit Pakistan at a “convenient” time, a formulation that deserves the riposte that problems of bilateral relations, the complexity of the regional situation, the uncertainties of the endgame in Afghanistan and the interplay of regional politics with that of global powers warrant that the Indian prime minister should make it convenient to continue the dialogue in Pakistan itself.
We have also been informed that, on his part, Zardari talked of Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek.
The part of the bilateral spectrum that can and may be lit up soon is represented by trade. There is by now a genuine possibility that it can be substantially built up without stoking fears of the exploitation of the vulnerabilities of either side, a consideration more applicable to Pakistan’s weaker economy than to India.
Pakistan can expand commerce and India can adjust its infamous non-tariff barriers with considerable assurance that the consequence would be mutually beneficial. It will probably be some time before Islamabad can convince New Delhi that it would be similarly advantageous to resolve more contentious issues and that, in the long run, the two countries should find a settlement in Jammu and Kashmir in close consultation with its long-suffering people.
President Zardari is usually too preoccupied with personal gain to be a political visionary. He has, however, taken an initiative that can energise the lacklustre process of normalisation of relations between Pakistan and India. Paradoxical as it may seem, he is today in a better position to deliver than Manmohan Singh.
The conversation held on April 8 would have better traction if the two leaders make it easier for the other side to move forward. Pakistan has yet to overcome the dark forces of terror that have claimed 35,000 Pakistani lives; this fact of the Pakistani situation warrants that India should not feel threatened from the Pakistani soil.
Building peace with neighbours is not a game; it is an undeniable demand of our times. If the interlocutors of April 8 dedicate themselves to this task, they would find the saint of Ajmer Sharif on their side. An accidental summit may become an important milestone in the quest for peace and progress in our blighted region.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.