India-Pak engagement: Advantage Zardari
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has a habit of springing surprises. Not really known for his overt religious leanings, his sudden announcement to visit India took everyone by surprise. Though Zardari and Benazir had visited the Chisti dargah in 2005, he has since never expressed any significant religious zeal.
It would have seemed churlish if the Pakistani army had rejected his desire to undertake a declared pilgrimage. But then he decided to bring with him a 40-member delegation on the so-called pilgrimage. Part of that delegation included his Interior Minister and Foreign Secretary. Then came the invitation by the Prime Minister for a lunch for the entire delegation including son and heir apparent to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto, who was on his first ever visit to India.
With every passing hour, the so called private visit turned into one of the most action packed ones. Nothing ever goes as scripted when it comes to an India-Pakistan summit meet. Zardari’s arrival was delayed by an hour triggering rumours that he wanted his one to one meeting with the PM to be as short as possible since news reports had started floating that the PM would bring up the prickly topic of Hafiz Saeed. Zardari before departing assured his countrymen, that he would not deviate from his government’s stand on 26/11 perpetrators and the judicial process. He delivered on that. To Dr Singh, he said that Pakistan was a victim of terrorism and that it had a judicial process, which would have to be adhered to.
Zardari’s main aim was to deliver a personal invitation to Dr Singh to visit Pakistan, announce it to the world and make his mark as the man who delivered on the India-Pakistan peace process. General Musharraf and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have tried hard to get Dr Singh to visit Pakistan, especially his hometown Gah in Punjab. It is an open secret in New Delhi that the PM is very keen to travel to Pakistan and ‘normalize’ relations.
In the minutes after the one to one meeting, it seemed that Zardari had bowled a doosra as the Prime Minister said, “I would be very happy to visit Pakistan on a mutually convenient date.” Missing in this, are the usual preconditions of Pakistan cutting all links with cross border terrorism.
The Zardaris knew that India had an answer to the doosra, so the younger Zardari bowled a teesra. He invited Rahul Gandhi to Pakistan, which according to Pakistani media reports was accepted immediately, but again the dates have to be worked out.
Pakistan is desperately in need of an image makeover. Seen as a terror breeding country by the rest of the world, the leadership in Pakistan would like nothing better than a validation by India that its democracy works and it is bold enough to make futuristic moves to further regional peace. It is a superficial tactic that President Musharraf employed to perfection. India had swallowed the bitter pill and welcomed him to Agra in 2001 and gave him the legitimacy he was seeking, when the fact was that he was a despot who threw out an elected government, through a coup. Asif Ali Zardari has an election coming up next year. If he can produce Prime Minister Singh at Minar-e-Pakistan he would have scored many brownie points. Who would have imagined that a man reviled as Mr 10 percent has now become a subcontinent visionary?
Zardaris don’t believe in subtlety. For an 8-hour visit they came in two aircraft. They left in choppers to Ajmer, limos waited for them at every step, a whopping 1 million dollars were offered as nazrana at the dargah. Here was conspicuous consumption evident every step of the way. Zardari headed back to Islamabad after managing to shift the attention from Hafiz Saeed, terror camps, ISI versus government, NATO supply routes, imbroglio with the US and countless other issues plaguing Pakistan.
The Prime Minister meanwhile has more than enough on his plate. The Congress party would hardly want him to take an ambitious step to build
consensus to visit Pakistan when no moves have been made by that country to bring to book the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice.
Who gained out of a Sunday of Channel-to-Channel Zardari cover? Why, Mr Zardari of course!
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash