VISAS, peace accords, even trade treaties between India and Pakistan pale into insignificance without the icing on the cake, a visit by Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, to meet the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.
Normally, a prime minister from another country ought to meet his counterpart in Pakistan, but not only do we not know who the prime minister of Pakistan might be some weeks from now, we should also not fool ourselves about which of the two is the more important office in Pakistan’s current political dispensation. This might change after the elections next year, but for the moment, there is no ambiguity. Hence, a Singh-Zardari meeting, along with meetings with some other equally important Pakistanis, is what will shape all other small steps forward.
For President Zardari, getting Manmohan Singh to visit would be nothing short of a coup — and for once we can use the term ‘coup’ differently in Pakistan. It would consolidate his position in Pakistan’s current politics, but more importantly, emphasise to the Indians that he, personally, is actively committed to moving forward on issues on which one can. While commerce secretaries and even foreign ministers can sign agreements, such a meeting in Pakistan would give the right signals of a commitment at the highest level of public office in Pakistan. From India’s perspective, more importantly, it would also show India’s willingness and commitment to come to Pakistan despite serious outstanding issues and to move forward again. If India is interested in a stable Pakistan, one which also evolves into a democracy, then given Pakistan’s internal political economy, a visit from the Indian prime minister would also be of much use to the political parties and groups that are hoping to see the first democratic transition in the country. By showing confidence in the civilian government — in the last 13 years, there has only been one visit by an Indian prime minister — Pakistan’s civilian political arrangement will be strengthened.
Although while it has been said that Indians prefer a ‘general in power in Pakistan’, it has also been said by academics and scholars that India needs a stable Pakistan for its own progress, a neighbour which comes to terms with its internal and domestic issues rather than one which interferes across the border. Importantly, India also has to get used to the idea that Pakistanis prefer democracy. To show that the Indians are committed to moving forward as much as are the Pakistanis, the Indian prime minister should also meet Nawaz Sharif and other members of the civilian and military leadership and demonstrate that this is an investment well into the future, beyond incumbent politicians.
Even at a very personal level, Dr Singh is said to embody many qualities which ought to go down well on such a visit. By all accounts, he is considered to be an individual with a great deal of humility and is the old-school scholar-gentleman with a lot of sharafat. He is an economist who is responsible for taking India from the 19th century to becoming a power-house, and a global player, today, and can offer some insight into Pakistan’s sluggish economy. He was also born in what is Pakistan.
The next generation of Indian leaders may have fewer of these personal qualities, born into a different generation, with values very different from their forefathers’. To be sure, some of those more materialistic values might even benefit Pakistan-India relations, but it might be better to take a chance on someone who is much closer to Pakistan in many ways than the unknown entities who will replace him.
Although the Indians keep arguing that his visit has to be able to make some major progress and show ‘tangible results’, this is very improbable. He will not take back with him very much from Pakistan’s leaders except promises but his visit will bring a closure to the current round of issues and might be the ‘new beginning’ that Pakistan’s foreign minister was trying to indicate in her press conference.
We cannot forget, and, of course, nor will the Indians, what happened immediately after the last time an Indian prime minister visited Pakistan. The peace process was stabbed in the back by an adventurous chief of army staff at Kargil, who subsequently gave Pakistan a decade of military dictatorship under the guise of ‘moderate enlightenment’ which, as we now know, was neither.
A visit from Dr Manmohan Singh ought to reassure the many sceptics, in Pakistan and in the rest of the world, that 13 years later, it is not just South Asia or India which has changed for the better, but Pakistan’s internal political economy with regard to India as well. It might just be the only empirical evidence we have at the moment to make such a claim.
The writer is a political economist.