ASIF Ali Zardari was never taken seriously in India. People either knew him as Benazir Bhutto?s husband or Mr Ten Per Cent. But his pronouncements after assuming charge of the Pakistan People?s Party began drawing attention in India.
He was applauded when he said, six months ago, that ties between the two countries should not be held ?hostage? to the Kashmir issue. This was what New Delhi had been saying all along.
Since Zardari?s point of view did not fit into Islamabad?s policy which ?mindset bureaucrats?, crusty politicians and the army top brass devised and pursued, he was denounced. Islamabad interpreted his statement differently and reiterated the same old policy. Even Pakistan?s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, whom I met in Islamabad subsequently, rationalised that Zardari did not mean what was being presumed.
Zardari, now Pakistan?s president, has expressed similar thought in a more explicit way. He seems to have stirred up a hornets? nest of opposition on the Kashmir issue. In an interview to a US daily, he said that ?Kashmiri militants are the terrorists.? I do not understand the furore over the remark. He has not given away Kashmir, nor has he withdrawn the claim on the state. All that he has done is to describe today?s militants as terrorists who, by no stretch of the imagination, are ?freedom fighters?, the title that Gen Pervez Musharraf gave them.
If this definition is accepted, the entire argument of fighting against the Taliban falls flat. They too are up in arms to ?free? people from the modern way of thinking and living because it, according to them, defiles ?Islamic behaviour?. (The Taliban have burnt down 125 girls? schools in the territory under them). Who are the militants except those who were first trained and armed by Gen Ziaul Haq to bleed India and then sustained by Gen Pervez Musharraf till 9/11 when the entire scene changed drastically?
True, when the 1987 state elections in Kashmir were rigged, many from among the youth crossed into Pakistan and obtained arms after getting training in their use. The first phase of the insurgency was not sullied either by religious fervour or by senseless killings. But that phase ended soon and the fundamentalists took over. Terrorists operating under different names of the Lashkar-i-Taiba continue to indulge in violence and encounters. They kill the innocent. Should they be called freedom fighters or mujahideen as the fundamentalists claim? Terrorism cannot be fought if its perpetrators are hailed when they infiltrate Kashmir and condemned when they operate in Pakistan. Zardari sees the point. Others, prisoners of old policies, don?t.
I am a bit disappointed by the criticism coming from the Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. He knows better because he saw through the game when he flew to Washington to retrieve the honour of his armed forces after the debacle at Kargil. They are the same terrorists who indulged in bomb blasts in Lahore, Bhakkar or elsewhere. They are the ones who burnt the Marriott in Islamabad. If Nawaz Sharif were to analyse the situation dispassionately, he would come to the same conclusion as Zardari has. Political considerations should not cloud Nawaz Sharif?s judgment.
Kashmir is an issue which has to be settled. There is no running away from it. But should even limited ties between the two countries depend on the solution of Kashmir? Both sides have wasted 60 long years and have fought three wars. They are nowhere nearer the Kashmir solution than they were in 1948. Had we reversed the order and facilitated trade and travel first, we would have generated enough goodwill to take up thorny problems like Kashmir.
Whenever I have visited Pakistan, I have found the climate improving. There is no tension. Pakistanis are awakening to New Delhi?s difficulties in keeping its polity pluralistic as well as democratic. India is ashamed of many happenings, particularly those which have made a mockery of our secular credentials.
Still the majority of people are trying to restore the ?balance? which India has come to represent over the years. The task has become more difficult because a band of Taliban has come up among the Hindus. Since we are nearing the general election, the BJP is at its old game of dividing the society. The party, burning with the ambition to return to power, is using all methods to incite the Hindus that constitute the majority.
Equation with Islamabad is an essential ingredient to protect the ethos of secularism. This is where I find Zardari different from the general run of politicians in Pakistan. He is preparing his country to face certain realities. He has no hesitation in saying that India is not a threat to his country. He has recognised India?s economic prowess. He rightly imagines Pakistani cement factories being constructed to provide for India?s huge infrastructure needs, Pakistan textile mills meeting Indian demand for blue jeans, Pakistani ports being used to relieve the congestion. What is wrong with that?
Mercifully, the clarification which Pakistan?s Information Minister Sherry Rehman issued regarding Zardari?s interview is confined to Kashmir. The most important part regarding economic cooperation between the two countries seems to have general support in Pakistan. It goes without saying that vested interests do not see anything beyond the Kashmir issue. And they are plugging the same old line. I concede that Kashmir is the core issue. But certain steps like trade, travel and sharing technology will pave the ground to tackle the issue more effectively.
Even on Kashmir, Sherry Rehman has said that Zardari never called the Hurriyat leaders terrorists. He did not comment on them. Why bring in something he never said? He wants Pakistan to be at par with India. But at the same time Zardari is not scared of India?s influence abroad.
One thing striking about Zardari is that he is courageous enough to tread the ground on which politicians of the old mould fear to walk. Leaders of different parties in Pakistan have a viewpoint on India that is not divergent from one another?s. Kashmir is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the feeling which the country?s size and economy evokes. It has more to do with fear than with religious bias.
No doubt, New Delhi is closely watching what Zardari does or says. His meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York went extremely well. It seems the latter was impressed by the former?s frankness. Pakistan is passing through difficult times. New Delhi has to do something concrete to express its solidarity with Islamabad, more so with the nascent democracy. It is in India?s own interest.