India's response to Zardari's overture

15 October 2008
It's not often that run-of-the-mill politicians rise above petty self-interest, and even more rarely that they articulate grand ideas and expansive visions. But when they do venture to think out of the box and offer worthy proposals, these must be heartily welcomed--no matter what their motives. It's to this category that the pronouncements of President Asif Ali Zardari in his recent interview to the Wall Street Journal belong. Zardari has done what no other Pakistani ruler has ever mustered the courage to do. He has declared that India is no longer his country's arch-enemy. Indeed, he says, "India has never been a threat to Pakistan". A majority in the Pakistani establishment, including many supporters of the peace process with India, will reject this proposition. Like many in the Indian establishment who view Pakistan through a prism of adversity, they have long seen India in inimical terms. For many, systemic hostility towards India is part of the very self-definition or identity of the Pakistani state and its reason for existence. Their posture demands strategic symmetry with India despite the fact that it's seven times bigger than Pakistan. Zardari's is a truly extraordinary statement--not so much because it captures the strategic reality or represents an accurate political assessment, but because it shows an intent to terminate Pakistan's all-encompassing six decades-long strategic hostility with India, which has taken the form of a continuous hot-cold war for most of this period. Zardari says his "democratic government" isn't "scared of Indian influence abroad". He has called Kashmir's militant separatists "terrorists". (The "terrorist" description has since been retracted by Sherry Rehman, but the rest of the statement stands.) He also says he has no objection to India's nuclear deal with the US--with the routine rider that Pakistan must enjoy parity: "Why should we begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracies ….?" No other Pakistani leader has lavished such compliments upon India. More, Zardari hinges Pakistan's "economic survival" upon better trade ties with India. He says there's no other strategy "for nations like us". For him, economic relations with India would be the key to Pakistan's prosperity. Its cement factories would cater to India's huge infrastructure needs, its textile mills would produce cloth to feed India's demand, and Pakistani ports would help India relieve congestion at its own ports. Even citizen-level initiatives like the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy have hesitated to outline such a vision. And few Pakistani analysts have gone as far as Zardari has in acknowledging India's emergence as a major economic power, vis-à-vis which Pakistan would play a naturally asymmetrical yet cooperative role. We don't know what motivated Zardari to make these iconoclastic statements. He couldn't been enthused solely by his maiden meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or by his anxiety to obtain a $100 billion capital infusion into Pakistan's economy, for which he needs to appear friendly to India. Zardari may not be an experienced leader, but he's far too street-smart to issue statements without knowing their consequences. Many in India, as in Pakistan, are aware of Zardari's unsavoury "Mr Ten Per cent" reputation. That apart, Zardari and Benazir Bhutto cut shady US-brokered deals with former President Pervez Musharraf, under which they were granted amnesty from criminal charges. The quid pro quo was that Bhutto would become the civilian face of government. Worse, Zardari's recent election as president with the power to make crucial appointments and dismiss elected governments/legislatures weakens parliamentary democracy. Can Zardari be trusted? He has comprehensively reneged on the Murree declaration. It's hard to argue that his vision of a nonadversarial relationship with India is shared by the military, which remains the final arbiter of Pakistan's fate. Yet, beyond a point, these questions are irrelevant. What matters is that Pakistan's duly elected President stuck his neck out by making a landmark overture to India at a make-or-break juncture in Pakistan's history. However obliquely, this reflects two views that have gained currency in Pakistan, as I noted during a recent visit and through discussions with Pakistani analysts. First, there's pervasive support for the peace process with India. Every policymaker believes Pakistan cannot afford tensions along its eastern border when its western border is burning under the combined impact of a pro-Taliban insurgency and the US-led war in Afghanistan. Second, perceptive Pakistanis believe their country has a great stake in intensified economic relations with India, which is seen as a growing economic power. Official trade between the two has doubled over two years and there's boundless scope for further growth. One vehicle for growth is the recent India-Pakistan agreement to resume overland trade across the Punjab and Sindh borders, which will reintegrate these regions after decades. Pakistan today faces its greatest existential crisis since 1947--in some ways, far graver than the traumatic separation of Bangladesh. Every institution of governance in Pakistan is in decay. Endemic political instability has been aggravated by its shaky ruling coalition. The economy is in dire straits, with inflation at 25 per cent, the rupee below a historic Rs78 to the dollar, slumping growth, and foreign exchange reserves not enough to pay for two months' imports. Meanwhile, insurgencies are flourishing in the Northwest Frontier Province, the tribal areas and in Balochistan, and separatism is growing in Sindh. The horrible prospect of Pakistan becoming "a nuclearised Yugoslavia in the making" can no longer be dismissed as an alarmist fantasy. The US bears a huge responsibility for the crisis--not least because it has conducted the war in Afghanistan primarily as a hunt for Al Qaeda, not as an operation to stabilise and reconstruct that devastated country. Its strikes across the border killing scores of civilians have bred unprecedented resentment to a point where "positive" or "mixed" feelings towards Al Qaeda (22 per cent) outweigh "negative" feelings (19 per cent), say polls. The US myopically backed Musharraf till the very end, and imposed bad political deals upon Pakistan, thus undermining its organic democratisation led by civil society mobilisation. India must reciprocate Zardari's overture by giving a determined push to the peace process. India has nothing to lose by pursuing a serious dialogue with Zardari on his ideas and building a climate for reconciliation and thus reach out to a wider audience in both countries. If India could talk seriously to Musharraf and make reportedly significant progress in back-channel talks on Kashmir, there's an even stronger reason why it should reciprocate Zardari's overture. On the other hand, India has a huge amount to gain if talks on the Zardari proposals defuse and eventually end its rivalry with Pakistan. Indeed, South Asia's very future hinges on such a breakthrough. India can best help Pakistan if it builds a relationship with it independent of the US and weans Pakistan away from dependence on Washington. Equally, India should reassure Islamabad by thinning out troops in the Kashmir Valley. It should offer Pakistan generous security cooperation and joint projects in Afghanistan and provide essential supplies, including petroleum products. Besides joining the newly formed "Friends of Pakistan" group, India should unilaterally allow duty-free imports of all goods from Pakistan. The Indian economy can easily bear this. Nothing could better help rebuild mutual relations.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.