Resplendent in a multicolored turban and dark blue shalwar kameez, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari appeared less humble than the average visitor to Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine in India’s Ajmer Sharif.
But what he may have lacked in humility, he more than made up for in generosity by donating $1 million to the shrine in the name of charity. The money—10 percent of the total bounty offered by the U.S. for information leading to the arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) cofounder Hafiz Saeed—is already paying dividends.
Less than 24 hours after Zardari’s visit, the Indian Supreme Court granted interim bail to 80-year-old Pakistani microbiologist Khalil Chishti. Imprisoned for murder since 1992, the aging scientist has been allowed to live at his family home in Ajmer pending his appeal. Chishti’s detention was one of the points discussed between Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“The P.M. and the Pakistani president noted that there had been steady progress in the dialogue process [during their private conversation],” Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told journalists at a press briefing on Sunday. “Both felt that we need to move forward step by step.”
“We’ve spoken on all the topics we could have spoken about,” Zardari told journalists after a 40-minute tête-à-tête between him and Singh that included discussion of Kashmir, according to Mathai. “We would like to have better relations with India,” Zardari added, “We’re hoping to meet on Pakistan soil very soon.” Singh was equally vague about the exact nature of the topics discussed by the two leaders but offered encouraging words for Pak-Indo peace. “Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal,” he told journalists. “We are willing to find practical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues [that we have].” According to independent analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi, “pragmatic” is the keyword.
“Neither country wants to be stuck on one or two items again as with the Mumbai attacks [of 2008],” he told The Daily Beast. “There is currently a definite thaw in our relations,” he added. “Pakistan needs to capitalize on it.” And it needs to capitalize on it fast. While India has expressed a desire to move forward on trade, Mathai told journalists that chief among his country’s concerns was the terrorism issue. “The leaders discussed terrorism, which is a major issue by which the Indian people judge progress in the bilateral relationship,” he told journalists, noting that LeT’s Saeed was specifically discussed as a point of contention.
Pakistan’s history is full of moments when it has come tantalizingly close to achieving peace with its chief rival before having it snatched away.
The current phase of Pak-Indo relations arguably started in 2005 when Pervez Musharraf traveled to India for three days of extensive negotiation and parley. At the time, three years before the Mumbai attacks, both countries claimed that the peace process was “irreversible” and pledged to boost cooperation in the energy sector. Singh also accepted an invitation to visit Pakistan—a trip that never materialized. Musharraf’s visit, however, was a resounding success; even more than most people believed at the time. Last year, a WikiLeaks document revealed that Singh and Musharraf had agreed to a nonterritorial solution to Kashmir that included free trade and movement across the contested border region referred to as the Line of Control. Musharraf’s exit effectively ended these plans, leaving Pakistan and India in a familiar holding pattern.
The arrival of the Pakistan Peoples Party–led government in Pakistan’s 2008 general elections was seen as a fresh start. Zardari has been a vocal supporter of peace between both countries, going so far as to promise a “no first strike” policy against India at a leadership summit in New Delhi a few days before the Mumbai attacks. Widely blasted by Pakistani analysts and the military alike, the faux pas was forgotten when 166 people died in November 2008 at the hands of terrorists allegedly funded by the LeT. India effectively cut all ties to Pakistan, demanding its chief rival act against terrorists based on its soil before further talks of peace. The holding pattern continued for the next two years despite a meeting between Singh and Zardari on the sidelines of an energy summit in Russia, and a meeting between Singh and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Egypt.
The first visible crack in the ice occurred in March 2011 when India and Pakistan faced each other in the Cricket World Cup semifinal. Singh extended an invitation to Gilani to attend the match at Mohali in India. During a luncheon, both sides agreed to continue to work toward restoring ties. A few short months later, in July 2011, Hina Rabbani Khar, who had assumed the post of foreign minister a few days prior to the talks, traveled to India. The trip was the formal resumption of ties between the rivals after they were stalled in 2008. The meeting ended with both foreign ministers pledging to commit to “comprehensive, serious, and sustained dialogue.”
As negotiations continued and more support emerged for normalization of ties among their constituents, Pakistan’s lawmakers decided to grant India “most-favored nation” trade status; a response to New Delhi declaring Pakistan a “most-favored nation” in 1996. While the legislation is currently under negotiation, Pakistan’s Commerce and Trade Minister Amin Fahim has claimed his government is committed to normalizing trade relations with India.
“At this point, everyone wants normalization of ties,” says Rizvi. “The concerned quarters—civilian government, Army, businessmen—they all want normalization. It is up to the governments to achieve this.” Part of this process was a delegation led by Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma in February 2012 that reciprocated an earlier visit by Fahim in a move heartily supported by Pakistan’s business community, including one of Pakistan’s most prominent businessmen, Mian Mansha.
The owner of the Muslim Commercial Bank and chairman of the Nishat Group, Mansha is the first Pakistani to crack the Forbes billionaires list. A longtime supporter of normalizing trade ties, he told The Daily Beast last year: “We are losing out on good trade that can benefit the people of both countries.” Fortunately, a liberalized trade regime is high on the list of both countries’ wants and has been scheduled for discussion in the next home secretaries’ meeting.
But there are concerns that if this government is removed from power—a running concern since it was elected in 2008—all these gains could be lost. Rizvi says there is little fear. “Zardari is a survivor,” he says. “Those banking on his days being numbered were expecting the Army or judiciary to take action against him. This has not happened.” Even Pervaiz Rashid, whose opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has been demanding Zardari’s resignation for several years, says relations with India are a serious concern. “We need to conduct more official exchanges and stick to them,” he told The Daily Beast. “People are tired of war. We just want peace.” If Zardari’s careful and deliberate actions continue, this peace could be lasting—despite public opinion of him.
President Zardari is often accused of being more interested in traveling the world in his official capacity as president of Pakistan than looking after his flock at home. In 2010, at the height of the worst flooding Pakistan had seen in its 64-year-history, he was on an official tour of France and the U.K. More recently, when target killings resumed in Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi, and led to a complete shutdown of the city at the end of March, the president was on a personal visit to the U.K.
It is hardly a surprise that Zardari’s trip to India when 139 people had been buried alive in an avalanche in the contested region of Siachen just 24 hours earlier would elicit a similar response. “He has a habit of disappearing on personal visits whenever he is needed in the country in his official capacity,” says the PMLN’s Rashid. But there is one key difference between Zardari’s visits to Europe and his visit to India; Pakistan has not fought three wars with either the U.K. or France. In addition, while Zardari was not in Siachen, it was one of the points discussed with Singh, who offered Indian support in rescue efforts.
“Zardari made the right call,” says Rizvi. “Him traveling to Siachen would have served no purpose and would likely have proven to be a hindrance for rescuers,” he told The Daily Beast. “The Army chief was there to support his troops. That is enough.”