Monday, 1 December 2008

When Zardari came to town

By Karan  Thapar

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian. I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking today”

The more I think about what he said, the more stunned I am he said it. But it’s not just his content that is startling. The fact that Asif Zardari was speaking as President of Pakistan to an Indian audience, in full knowledge that he was doing so on live television, makes his statements all the more amazing. Not one of his predecessors would have spoken so openly and with such obvious personal conviction. Indeed even his late wife, Benazir, would have been more circumspect.

To begin with, it’s the number of commitments he readily made. Pakistan has accepted a no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy. “I can assure you that Pakistan will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons)”, he said. When I asked if this was a no-first-use assurance, adding “if so you have just made headline news”, he immediately replied: “most certainly”.

At one stroke, the Pakistani President reversed his country’s traditional insistence on keeping open the option of using nuclear weapons first. I don’t know what his army thinks, but Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) has publicly endorsed the Zardari line. So even if voices in the press are critical, he has majority support in Parliament.

Next were two expressions of future intent. He wants to see India and Pakistan establish an economic union. He did not explain in detail but he said they should aim for joint economic super power status. And he said he was in favour of “a flexible visa regime, eliminating travel documents … replacing them with (a) smart card enabled E-visa system.” 

“We don’t feel threatened by India”, Zardari said. “India should also not feel threatened by us.” And then, to re-inforce his point, he added: “I want change and reconciliation.” 

For me, however, the most important thing Asif Zardari said was not in response to questions and so it can’t be explained away as an off-the-cuff or unthought-out answer. It was part of his prepared speech. It was, therefore, a well-considered, planned and carefully crafted statement which, of course, makes it all the more incredible.

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian”. As he said those words a perceptible hush fall on the audience. They literally couldn’t believe their ears. But Asif Zardari wasn’t finished. “I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking to you today”. As I looked at the seated dignitaries in front of me I saw a sea of flashing smiles and sparkling eyes looking at Zardari on the big screen. Seconds later, they were vigorously applauding.

Asif Zardari said he was quoting his wife. Benazir Bhutto had spoken in 2000. In fact in 2005, when he visited Lahore, L.K. Advani said something very similar. But both of them were leaders of the opposition, a post that allows the holder to speak freely. And they weren’t speaking at a high profile gathering broadcast live. In contrast, Zardari is President of Pakistan. He was addressing one of the most publicised conferences in India. And he knew the media was waiting for every word he said.

I’m not sure if the presidents of North Korea or East Germany (whilst it existed) have ever spoken in such terms, but I doubt it. Certainly the leaders of divided Ireland have not. Nor the Malays and Singaporeans or the Indonesians and East Timorese. Yet the President of Pakistan has! I see this as an indication of Asif Zardari’s thinking and his attitude to India. And I believe he meant it because if he did not the sentence would have got stuck in his throat. It’s almost impossible to express such sentiments when you are lying.

The only question is can he deliver? And, I suppose, how soon? But there is another question we should pose to ourselves: how can we strengthen his hands without, of course, embarrassing him? If a friend can help you, whilst helping himself, it makes sense to help him too. Kids understand that instinctively, adults sometimes forget!

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