Given the cloud of uncertainty hovering over his government and advancing years, it is doubtful if Manmohan Singh would realise his dream of visiting Pakistan before he leaves the South Block (Indian Prime Minister’s office). Since the leadership of the great democracy was forced on him in rather unusual circumstances in 2004, Singh, born in Gah in present-day Pakistan, has not made a secret of his wish to visit the land of his birth and achieve what has eluded his predecessors — a peace breakthrough with the neighbour.
Pakistan’s leadership, present and past, has bent over backwards to invite the Indian leader time and again. Last month, President Asif Ali Zardari extended the invitation once again, urging him to attend Guru Nanak’s anniversary celebrations at Nankana Sahib, only to be snubbed yet again.
Meanwhile, as Singh, like Prince of Denmark, takes his time to make up his mind in the last couple of years in office, someone else has snatched the initiative. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, one of India’s most promising politicians, has surprised many by undertaking a week-long trip to Pakistan. The Bihar leader, who lost little time in responding to the invitation of provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab and the federal government, is being mobbed like a rock star wherever he goes in Pakistan.
The Hindu’s Anita Joshua reports that the Bihar leader, sporting a traditional Sindhi cap and ‘ajrak’ for greater part of his first day in Karachi, quickly won the hearts and minds of his hosts. He repeatedly batted for stronger relations and greater economic and cultural partnership between India and Pakistan. Kumar also talked of the “Bihar growth story” to emphasise why peace is essential for prosperity and growth, drawing fulsome praise from Imran Khan and others.
Interestingly, Kumar’s party, Janata Dal, is a key member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP. That, however, has not prevented him from passionately pitching for India-Pakistan bonhomie and an inclusive polity and tolerance on both sides of the border. Kumar was recently in the news for warning his allies against projecting Gujarat’s Modi as a candidate for the top job in 2014, arguing that a future leader must represent the nation’s secular ethos and pluralism.
The Bihar leader plumped for the same values during his passage to Pakistan. On a visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, he wrote in the visitors’ book: “The visit to Mohatta Palace, built in the tradition of stone palaces of Rajasthan, has reinforced my belief that the cultural links between our two nations are abiding, which is central to our history. If we shared a common past, it’s wise to share a common future, regardless of geographical boundaries.”
True words of wisdom there. But how many politicians, in power or out of it, in the two countries share this courage of conviction and sincerity to bridge the impossible gulf between the neighbours? If all of us, Indians and Pakistanis, really believed in this reality of a shared past and shared future, why are we still stuck in a time warp? Over the past 65 years, the more things change between India and Pakistan, the more they have remained the same.
Of late, things have indeed started to change though. A remarkable and little-noticed shift is taking place in the surreal world of India-Pakistan relations despite the best efforts of the guardian angels of foreign policy and security establishments on both sides to maintain the status quo.
The red carpet reception rolled out to the Bihar CM in Islamabad, with President Zardari ignoring all protocol to host a special Diwali dinner in honour of the visitor, was clearly meant to be a message to Delhi and PM Singh, who has allowed himself to be dictated by cynical South Block hawks on relations with the neighbour.
And the Bihar leader is not the only one to get a rousing reception. Kumar arrived in Pakistan even as Sukhbir Singh Badal, deputy leader of Punjab, was crossing Wagah after a remarkable visit to the other Punjab. Badal, the virtual head of the Akali government in Indian Punjab, had arrived with some real big and bold ideas to take the relationship to a whole new level.The young leader presented an ambitious roadmap for economic partnership between the two Punjabs in his talks with Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who is to reciprocate the visit in the next few weeks.
Besides pushing for free trade zones and more trade routes and road links across the Radcliffe Line, Badal has made an impassioned appeal, asking the neighbours to clear the negative effects of the Partition and hurdles that prevent free movement of people who had not long ago been one. In doing so, Badal, whose party too is part of the NDA, may be voicing the sentiments of the silent multitudes of the subcontinent that have been consistently ignored by their governments.
C. Raja Mohan notes in Indian Express: “If the BJP has abandoned the peace legacy of [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, the Congress hasn’t had the courage of conviction to follow through its own initiatives. Conservatives in the Cabinet, like Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, have repeatedly blocked the PM’s initiatives, including his plans to visit Pakistan. The Congress has ceded the initiative not to the BJP, but to regional leaders.”
Clearly, Badal and Kumar are filling the political and leadership vacuum left open by Premier Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. As on Kashmir and other hot-button issues, the Congress leadership, notwithstanding its liberal image, has betrayed a singular lack of courage and vision to take decisive steps even when offered historic opportunities.
So what’s Singh afraid of? What would it take to take that bold step towards lasting peace and normalisation of ties with the neighbour? Even Vajpayee, for all his flaws and ideological baggage, had been much more enthusiastic about clearing the mess with Pakistan. He’s still remembered for his courage to make that historic bus journey across the border, although it ended in the Kargil disaster. If Nawaz Sharif hadn’t invited the trouble called [Pervez] Musharraf on himself, who knows what history would have been like today?
Interestingly, one is told that even PM Singh and Musharraf had come “very close” to burying the ghost of Kashmir for good and move forward. South Asia watchers suggest that a breakthrough was indeed within the realm of possibility, given Musharraf’s total control of the levers of power, including the Army.
Still, it’s not too late to make up for the lost time and squandered opportunities. Whatever Zardari’s reputation in other areas, he and his government have demonstrated genuine sincerity and keenness to make a fresh start with India and clear the toxic baggage accumulated over the past many decades. The Army has signalled that it is willing to play along too, reflecting a national consensus seeking peace and better relations with the arch-rival.
India and Pakistan do have issues that are not only serious, they have become impossibly complex and frustrating because of decades of inaction and resistance of vested interests on both sides that are against shedding old, hardened mind sets and archaic security paradigms. For real leaders with vision and courage though, nothing is insurmountable.
Is PM Singh, recently hailed by Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper as “a genuine partner in peace and a leader who understands that the old paradigm of hate and suspicion hurts both countries,” up to the task? This may be the only opportunity to rescue his legacy.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer. Follow him on twitter.com/aijazzakasyed