The unlikely peacemaker

Whether Zardari uses the time that he has left in office to allow supplies of much-needed Indian fuel to energy-starved Pakistan is the question

Indian oil tankers emblazoned with the Indian Oil Corporation logo trundling into Lahore from Bhatinda? Gas pipelines to follow? Glitches in the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status ironed out?
If the “pull-aside” between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani does take place on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the South Korean capital of Seoul, the gravy train of trade could be a takeaway, if not the kim chi, Korea’s spicy hors’ doeuvre, to at least charge things up in the India-Pakistan relationship desperately in need of a big ticket breakthrough.

And the man looking to reap the MFN dividend, and go where other samjhautas and structured dialogues have not gone before, is not Mr Gilani, whose future is anyway uncertain, but the much reviled President Asif Ali Zardari.
He’s an adversary that neither Pakistan’s judiciary nor the military has been able to outwit so far, who could end up heading the first elected government in Pakistan that lasts its full term. Whether he uses the time that he has left in office — given that he still manages to stay one step ahead — to use the path-breaking move to allow supplies of much-needed Indian fuel to energy-starved Pakistan as the metaphor for a whole new relationship is the question.
What Mr Zardari’s unusual longevity in office means for Pakistan’s polity, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that he heads, and for India remains to be seen. So far, the India-Pakistan peace track has seen issues that divide, fading from the front pages.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. Any build-up of expectations has only led to spectacular disappointment. With plans for a GAIL gas pipeline from Bhatinda to Pakistan’s Punjab in the works, Islamabad whittling down the MFN negative list, and a possible agreement on transit fees for the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) gas pipeline, all raising the prospect of the trillion-dollar revenues that could accrue, Mr Gilani may have something to take home.
Dr Singh’s policy of placing trade at the heart of ties between the two nations, instead of the primacy hitherto given to Kashmir and terrorism, may just find acceptability as it holds out trade as an opportunity for Pakistan to ride on India’s coat-tails out of the morass, particularly at this juncture when US ties with Pakistan are fast fraying over the Afghan endgame, leaving the dollar-aid economy vastly straitened.
But while there was hope and movement in UPA-1, the Pakistan track during Dr Singh’s UPA-2 avatar has been — barring the mis-step on Balochistan at Sharm-el Shaykh and the hyperbole of Male, where Dr Singh even declared the ineffectual Mr Gilani “a man of peace” — far less satisfying. Mirroring some of the political distractions that beset the UPA, Pakistan’s political parties are similarly consumed by the politics of survival. But with the prospect of legitimate elections once again after the 2008 polls, India may find it is doing business with a “democracy”.
Despite that, Mr Zardari would have to be a brave man to take the Pakistan Army-establishment head on; even with all the Army’s skeletons rattling in its Balochistan cupboard, where the Army has a questionable track record in quelling a long-running insurgency. Military budgets are still closed to civilian scrutiny, while Pakistan Military Inc.’s business interests across the country are yet to be challenged by any politician.
But in employing “Memogate”, where a US businessman of Pakistani origin leaked the President’s alleged alert of Washington to an impending coup, the Army has shown it recognises the threat posed by Mr Zardari’s continuance in office. A fact, further illustrated by the Army’s attempts to disqualify him by rejecting the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the deal between former President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto-Zardari, which allowed the couple back into the country.
So far, with Mr Zardari careful to stay away from the sticky India-Pakistan issue — his only foray in that direction came after 26/11 when he offered to send the then ISI chief to India, but quickly backtracked — the establishment has been unable to tar and feather him on India, as they had “traitorous” previous civilian dispensations.
This man in the presidential hot seat, winning his spurs after spending long years in jail, may not fit the bill of a traditional peacemaker. Once famed for being Mr Ten Per Cent, his deals are in keeping his hard-won allies in surprisingly good humour, and in the face of confrontation with the judiciary, moving to take control of the Senate by persuading arch rival Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to join hands with him. This first-of-its-kind joint show of force could make it virtually impossible for the military-ISI to take the parliamentary route to run the President out of office.
The deal-making should come as no surprise. Mr Zardari’s beginnings as the son of a well-heeled cinema hall owner did not come in the way of making a spectacular political alliance with a Bhutto. Nor has criticism from the rank and file of the grassroots PPP that he is an outsider, more comfortable with the PPP elite, fazed him. Instead, he knows that he has the ultimate card — the Bhutto-Zardari heirs who evoke high octane emotion when they raise their mother’s martyrdom.
The challenge before India must be to swiftly nail whatever benefits accrue from newfound economic linkages in the here and now, rather than attempt to assess who the better interlocutor would be — a pragmatic civilian leadership or the virulently anti-Indian armed forces.
In Seoul, then, however short the meeting, Dr Singh must attempt to assuage Pakistan’s concerns. Over India’s presence in Afghanistan, Dr Singh must make clear that rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure is no pincer movement to encircle Pakistan, but an extension of Dr Singh’s delicate “economy over politics” minuet that draws South and Southeast Asia into a tighter embrace.
The Indian establishment must clarify that it has moved beyond ingrained beliefs that only generals like Pervez Musharraf and Army-backed puppets like cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan can turn off the terror tap. As a new spy chief, Zaheerul Islam, takes over and analysts see the spy wing’s influence over domestic politics waning, India cannot remain frozen in its tracks, unable to capitalise on an ever-weakening hold of the Pakistan Army.
This is a Pakistan Army distracted by the Afghan endgame, facing the embarrassment of having its cover blown on giving safe haven to elements that prey on US and foreign forces in Afghanistan, facing the brunt of anger at home by the fast mutating Pakistan Taliban.
Mr Zardari must find the courage, not just to outwit the Army, but to strike out as India’s partner — however unlikely that scenario may seem — in an uncharacteristic quest for peace.

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