Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Erasing the borders

The Sufi saint, Sultan-i-Hind Gharib Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti, has the power to erase the borders of the mind, several hundred years after he lived and died in Ajmer in 1230 AD. It is eloquent testimony to the fact that the people of South Asia still follow a different rhythm than the one often ordained by their governments. 

For just a moment, you could accuse the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, of having other, much more worldly ideas up his sleeve, when he comes for a day-long visit to Ajmer Sharif later this week. He must have known, you could argue, that since he let known his desire to visit the dargah of the Sufi saint, India could hardly refuse. To come to India and not meet the Indian prime minister? Admittedly, that would be a diplomatic faux pas of horrendous proportions. 

Clearly, Zardari has stolen an imaginative moment from the bitter-sullen history of India-Pakistan, by asking to come to pay his respects to a cherished and much-beloved saint across the Indian subcontinent. It shows what we, despite the horrendous Mumbai attacks of 2008, are still capable of. 

Perhaps the Pakistani president will seek forgiveness for those attacks and pray that both countries can move on by jointly erasing the scourge of terrorism. God knows, there are more people killed in Allah's name in Pakistan today than elsewhere in the region. 

In fact, the Zardari visit could turn out to be one of those moments in India-Pakistan ties when we accidentally rise above ourselves and renew our promises to our people. Over the past year, as New Delhi, very quietly but very deliberately, broke the link between Pakistani action on the Mumbai attacks and progress elsewhere in the relationship, much has happened behind the veil of hateful rhetoric that both countries love to envelop themselves in. 

To be sure, there is the recent move by Zardari's government - as well as the army, run by Ashfaq Kayani - to end the completely ridiculous "positive list" that defined the bilateral trading relationship (meaning, you could only trade those items on that list) and move to a "negative list", which means you can trade anything except the 1,200-odd items on that list. This list, the Pakistani establishment has promised, is a precursor to the Most Favoured Nation status that is overdue from Pakistan to India, since 1996. 

The fact is, Zardari's Pakistan is enormously keen to return to becoming a "normal" country, especially in its ties with India with which it shares a very special relationship. There is the fact of the economy in a fearful downward spiral, which, when coupled with the almost-daily terrorist attacks, has made the average Pakistani look at its own overreaching army with increasing distaste. 

The fact is, Pakistan needs help. It is also too proud to ask it of a neighbour with whom it has fought three wars, one major conflict at Kargil and added insult to grievous injury by the terrorist acts in Mumbai. But India must also realise that the Mumbai terror attacks are also condemned by ordinary Pakis-tanis with the same vigour and passion that India reserves for those awful 62 hours. 

If a rising India, clearly the economic engine of the region, wants to improve relations with all the countries of its neighbourhood, what better way than to integrate all these states and make it part of the economic miracle? India must redeem itself by ensuring inclusive growth not only at home, but promising that all boats rise together in South Asia. 

Surely, the Pakistanis are catching on? None other than Pakistan's commerce minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim (who belongs to Zardari's Sindh province) told his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma, during talks in Islamabad in February, that Pakistan wanted India to extend it the same lowered tariff privileges it had extended to its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh. 

To say that Sharma was stumped with the Pakistani request would be an understatement. His reply was somewhere along Manmohan Singh's statement to Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Seoul recently: You have to do something solid. 

To Singh's credit, he sees clearly that economics must create a wedge into the complicated politics of India-Pakistan. There is now the promise to export petroleum products as well as lay an oil pipeline from Bathinda, via Fazilka - the scene of major Hindu-Muslim riots during Partition, considering it is only 11 km from the border - to energy-starved Pakistan. 

Singh's real problem, of course, is his management of the unwieldy coalition at home, and the real need to take the opposition along. As the head of an increasingly weakened government, he's unable to get a grip on the fractious politics inside India. He has wanted to make a visit to Pakistan since 2007 - in fact, the streetlights in his beloved home-town, Gah, in Chakwal district back there were even fixed in anticipation of his visit - but now fears he may be seen to be too out-of-touch with the mood at home if he proposes the plan. 

This is where the suave Zar-dari comes in. With much flair and a perfect sense of timing, he's announced that he's coming to India later this week. With a little help from Gharib Nawaz, on whose saintly shoulders the hopes of large parts of the subcontinent lie, some things have got to give. 

The writer is a commentator on foreign affairs.

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