Mending fences with India can disarm hawks within and outside Pakistan army
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardaris recent unofficial trip to India was a win-win story in Pakistan,not least because despite the personal nature of the visit,the Indian prime minister,Manmohan Singh,extended him a courtesy meeting. The meeting also indicated that a thaw in troubled bilateral relations may well be in the offing. That the spokesman of the Indian foreign ministry,in his post-meeting briefing to the media,mentioned Kashmir alongside the Mumbai attacks among the outstanding issues between the nuclear rivals,came as brownie points for the Pakistani side,which did not even bother to give its official version of the Zardari-Singh dialogue.
Even Nawaz Sharif,Zardaris sworn nemesis,had nothing but praise for the visit. With a smile,he told cameramen that Zardari had done a great job by going to India and meeting Singh. A businessman,all for removing trade barriers and building commercial interests on both sides,Sharif sincerely believes that the creation of such positive vested interests between Pakistani and Indian businesses would go a long way in normalising soured relations. And sure enough,a new business visa regime is in the works,which will be announced after the secretary-level talks to be held soon.
Pakistan has inaugurated a second trade gate at the Wagah-Attari border,with a network of motorways constructed around Lahore from Wagah to reach the south-bound national highway and the north- and west-bound motorways to Peshawar and Faisalabad,the latter being Pakistans textile capital. The Punjab government has also completed an eight-lane highway to the Ganda Singh Wala border near Kasur,40 km southeast of Lahore and across the Sutlej to Ferozepur in India. This is also linked to the motorway network and was made keeping in mind the possibility of opening that border once trade is liberalised.
Earlier,Singhs offer to transmit up to 5,000 MW power to the energy-starved west Punjab in particular was a gesture that was widely welcomed in Pakistan. The national grids shortfall,which covers Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,Balochistan,Sindh and Punjab,is touching the precise 5,000 MW figure. Pakistan has accepted the offer with much gratitude. Such confidence-building measures,whose fruits the public will reap directly,will help the democratic government at the Centre and particularly in Punjab,from where the army draws much of its muscle power,pull the rug from under the feet of anti-India extremists. Rogue elements in the army,too,who may have sympathy for the likes of Hafiz Saeed,will be forced to look the other way because the army as an institution never acts against public sentiment in Pakistan.
The strengthening of India-Pakistan relations,despite many unresolved issues between them,can work wonders for redefining Pakistans national security prerogatives over the medium to long term. If progress continues to be made in bilateral relations,the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) can rightly claim credit for it in what is now virtually an election year in Pakistan.
For Zardari personally,this has been a year of high achievement,despite his government having been in the dock with a rather activist supreme court. He has not only managed to survive even while virtually defying SC orders by refusing to implement many court decisions,but has also made enduring political gains for his party by securing last month a majority in the senate,the upper house of the parliament,whose term will run out three years hence,that is,at least two years after the next election. The senate mandate has also put a damper on the oppositions campaign to demand an earlier election. This gives the PPP quite a breather.
Even if Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is convicted by the SC for his refusal to write to the Swiss authorities to open investigations against Zardaris bank accounts,allegedly filled with ill-gotten wealth,the PPP can either nominate a new PM in his stead or call fresh elections,claiming political victimisation,this time by a court that is increasingly seen as taking an interventionist posture. The army is too engrossed with
the American endgame in Afghanistan and with how revamped US-Pakistan relations shape up to get directly involved in politics,or for that matter,worry too much about the democratic government mending fences with India. If there is an opportunity to move swiftly with improving relations with India all these years after the failed Musharraf-Vajpayee Agra summit,it is now.
Both Zardari and Sharif are cognizant of this opportunity. It is only nascent entrants in politics like Imran Khan who opposed Zardaris India visit,citing flimsy reasons such as army troops being buried alive under an avalanche at Siachen while the president undertook that visit. The criticism was wisely downplayed by the media even as Imran remains their darling,ostensibly because the public showed little appetite for such criticism.
To be seen to be mending fences with India,showing to the electorate that it works for their own good and thus garnering popular support,can disarm the hawks within and outside the Pakistan army,and ensure the strengthening of the democratic process in Pakistan especially when the ruling and a major opposition party are on the same page on India-Pakistan ties.
With eyes set on a possible breakthrough in relations with India and on the partys prospects beyond the election,Zardari had a good reason for thanksgiving at Ajmer. No brownie points for guessing what he wants next from the Khwaja.
Murtaza Razvi,who was found dead in Karachi on April 19,was an editor at Dawn. He sent this piece to The Indian Express last week. For his articles,go to indianexpress.com/ columnist/murtazarazvi/ email@example.com