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Is Zardari's India visit badly-timed?

April 06, 2012 22:19 IST

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to visit Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti's Dargah at Ajmer Sharif with his family members on April 8 indicates his willingness to walk the extra mile to normalise relations with India. But is his timing wrong? Alok Bansal wonders.

 Among various actors on the Pakistani political stage, President Zardari is one of the few, who genuinely believe in good relations with India. He has in the past postulated that contentious issues such as Kashmir could be left for future generations to resolve. 

The first trade policy announced by the Pakistan People's Party government in July 2008 was revolutionary and aimed at importing petroleum products from India and taking various steps to liberalise trade between the two neighbours. 

If implemented, this could have made India, the second largest trading partner of Pakistan after China.  However, the power dynamics in Pakistan is such that these well-meaning steps, despite the support of the ruling party could not fructify.   

The visit comes at a time when the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council, comprising the lunatic fringe of Pakistan's radical establishment including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba Hafiz Saeed and some main stream politicians with links to Pakistan's security establishment have been protesting against the granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India, symbolises two major aspects.

Firstly, a visit to India at this time, when certain section of the security establishment believes that liberal trade with India will weaken the ideological moorings of Pakistan, reaffirms his unwavering commitment to better relations with India. 

Secondly, the visit by a Shia head of state to a Sufi shrine in India signals his belief in moderate Islam.  At a time when Taliban is not only targetting Shias, but is also destroying popular Sufi shrines across Pakistan to push in their version of radically intolerant Islam, the sheer symbolism of this visit must not be lost.

Ajmer is arguably the most venerated Sufi shrine in South Asia and the visit could go a long way to bridge the sectarian fault lines in Pakistan.  It could also reassure the Barelvi majority in Punjab and Sindh, which has been facing the constant onslaught from hardline and better-organised Deobandi and Wahabi sects.

The Indian prime minister's lunch invitation to the visiting President is in conformity with the norms of courtesy and protocol.  The luncheon meeting comes at a time when India has offered 5,000 MW of electricity to Pakistan, which is facing an unprecedented power shortage, and it has the potential of jumpstarting bilateral trade.

Power shortage had touched 50 per cent of the electricity demand in Pakistan, triggering widespread riots across Punjab, and Indian power could cool things down and generate tremendous good will.  The talks could discuss the next steps that need to be taken to exploit the tremendous trade potential between the two countries.

Unfortunately, for Zardari, just a few days before his visit, the United States announced a bounty of $10 million on Saeed, the founder and former chief of proscribed Lashkar-e-Tayiba for his involvement in Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008.

In announcing the bounty, the US has placed Saeed on the same pedestal as Taliban's supreme commander Mullah Omar, just a notch lower than the Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri, who has a bounty of $25 million on his head. 

Although, the bounty announced on Zawahiri and Omar is on their heads; thereby meaning their capture or elimination, and in case of Saeed, on the information that could lead to his arrest and conviction, the announcement has the potential of eclipsing all other issues.

India has been pressing Pakistan to apprehend Saeed for his role in the ghastly terrorist attack.  Pakistan's plea until now has been that India has not been able to provide credible evidence for his involvement in Mumbai attacks; the US is therefore offering a lucrative incentive for anyone with information to provide that evidence. 

While the apprehension of Saeed for his role in the terrorist incident has been a longstanding Indian demand and the award has been widely acclaimed in India, the sheer timing of the announcement has taken the wind out of Zardari's sails. 

The announcement has ensured that Saeed will overshadow any fruitful discussion that could have taken place between Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  There were heated discussions in Pakistani parliament over the visit and the opposition members of Parliament supposedly close to security establishment wanted to know the agenda of the meeting, while many others wanted to vouch for Saeed's innocence.

The Pakistani PM was forced to state in parliament that the visit was purely a personal and religious one, without any official agenda.  The important question that needs to be answered is the rationale behind the US announcement at this juncture.

For quite some time, the US attempts have been to create differences among the political and military elite within the Pakistan.  It has successfully shattered the unanimity that had emerged within Pakistan's ruling establishment against granting concessions to the US.

The whole Memogate controversy was primarily fuelled by a US citizen to generate differences between the military and political leadership, as well as between the ruling coalition and the opposition.  By the announcement of this bounty, the US has not only signalled its commitment to India, but has also led to sparring within the Pakistani establishment.

While apprehension of Saeed is essential to meet the ends of justice and to prevent such terrorist attacks in future, Zardari's visit is not the right time to press for it.  The two leaders must use the opportunity of this private luncheon meeting to discuss infrastructure for trade.

Trade is the key for normalization of relations and could create stakeholders for peace. After offering power, India could even offer some locomotives to haul Pakistan Railways out of the woods.  Even if there are no spare locomotives, it makes sense to offer some to Pakistan at a time when the PR is limping on account of serious malfunctioning of the Chinese locomotives.

After all, the two railway systems were part of a common network and strong complementarities do exist between the two railways.   

The talks need to focus on generating goodwill by benefitting the common man by increased trade, so as to defeat the massive campaign being launched in Pakistan against trade with India.  As the movement of petroleum products, food stuff and pharmaceutical products start, the masses in Pakistan will reap the benefits of cheaper fuel, food and medicines, thereby turning them into a proponent of liberal trade regime.

The discussions must be utilised to allay the apprehensions in the Pakistani mind about Indian non-tariff barriers.  Better trade relations between India and Pakistan would not only bring in lasting peace and prosperity, but could usher in South Asian Economic Union in due course.   

Alok Bansal is Senior Fellow, at Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
Alok Bansal in New Delhi