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What did Bilawal and Rahul discuss over lunch?

Last updated on: April 17, 2012 13:51 IST

What did Bilawal and Rahul discuss over lunch?

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Sunil Sethi

Other than an exchange of pleasantries and a series of banal tweets from Bilawal Zardari, it is hard to know what the scions of India and Pakistan's most prominent and enduring political dynasties talked about when they met for Sunday lunch in New Delhi.

"Prez n I enjoyed Lunch with Rahul Gandhi and PM Singh. Lovely meal. Much to learn from each other," was the kind of profoundly inane message that the 23-year-old sent on encountering his 41-year-old counterpart.

Despite their differences in age and political experience, the presumption of heirs presumptive is unfathomable. What can the two possibly learn from one another?

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Image: Pakistan's President Zardari waves as his son Bilawal looks on before they depart for Jaipur at the airport in New Delhi on April 8
Photographs: Reuters

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Both young men hostages to forces outside their control

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Both young men are hostage to forces outside their control and, it could be argued, neither sought the role in which they find themselves cast.

Bilawal was 19 when his mother was assassinated and found himself appointed chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, officially changing his name to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari; Rahul was 21 when another suicide bomber got his father.

Both had their foreign educations disrupted due to security concerns -- the Pakistani press reported that Bilawal's security at Oxford cost about a crore of Pakistani rupees a year.

Although Bilawal holds no parliamentary office, Rahul, following his party's mortifying defeat in recent state elections, could have tipped off his lunch companion from Pakistan of the fluctuating nature of democratic politics.

The best-intentioned poster boys can suddenly find their image and pulling-power severely dented. Yet Rahul Gandhi is in a key position to influence Congress politics and, to some extent, government policy. Bilawal Zardari is #172 things happen a little differently in the "Inshallah nation", which makes Bilawal's future, if anything, more fraught.

When Bilawal invited Rahul to visit Pakistan, an offer that was gracefully accepted, the two could have spoken of freer movement for the aam aadmi, goods and services across the border.

The visa regime remains inexplicably arbitrary, even draconian. The writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the latest literary star from Pakistan, has been in Delhi and Bangalore this week to launch his new novel, and he described the difficulties he experienced in getting a visa. (He is a Canadian citizen, which ought to make matters easier -- but does not, because Indian authorities insist that people of Pakistani origin must produce Pakistani passports for visas.)


Image: Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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What the two men should have discussed

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The two men could have talked of the $10 million bounty recently offered by the US for Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, on the lam in Pakistan. But possibly such subjects, to be thrashed out between foreign ministers and bureaucrats, are too distasteful to be brought up over a companionable lunch.

On a more human level, Bilawal and Rahul could have discussed the appalling lives of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers serving on the dangerous heights of the Siachen glacier in sub-zero temperatures.

It is hard for humans to breathe, eat and sleep at 22,000 feet, and these young men, in the same age-group as Rahul and Bilawal, suffer from pulmonary and cerebral edema; they lose limbs to frostbite and die in landslides and falls from precipices in that icy frontier.

The fatalities go unreported on either side but their harrowing conditions are described in a moving article titled 'Damn You, Siachen' by Kamran Shafi, a former major in the Pakistani army, in this week's Express Tribune published from Karachi.

Shafi was press information officer to Benazir Bhutto when Rajiv Gandhi and she met at a time of transitory entente cordiale in 1989.

As a souvenir Benazir presented her Indian counterpart with a cartoon she commissioned specially. "It depicted high mountains in the background," recalls Shafi, "with a bearded mullah and a Hindu priest on either side of them and Benazir and Rajiv in the foreground. They are both saying: "Let's leave them behind and climb the mountain."

Kamran Shafi wonders if Sonia Gandhi still possesses the cartoon, and adds: "I respectfully urge her to share it with the world."


Image: File image of Indian army soldiers mustering at their base camp after returning from training at Siachen glacier.
Photographs: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

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