Zardari’s new political initiative and Ajmer visit

London, April 22: President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari is best known for other things, and not for anything that links him with Islam or teachings of Islam. He is not a great admirer of saints or their shrines, as he idolises things that make his life in this world more charming and worth living. However, rumours are that he always takes help from Peers and fortune tellers before formulating his political strategies; and some even claim that he is often surrounded by them in Awan e Sadar and in Bilawal House.

Despite the above short introduction, Asif Zardari surprised everyone when he declared he wanted to visit Ajmair Sharif for a pilgrimage. No disrespect to the Saint resting in Ajmer Sharif, but there are many famous and pious Saints resting inside Pakistan; and I don’t know how many of them had a visit from Asif Ali Zardari.

Furthermore, question is, if the Pakistani cricket team was playing a cricket match in India, would Asif Ali Zardari still have gone to Ajmer Sharif or would he have activated the ‘cricket diplomacy’? The point I want to make is that he did not go to India only to pay respect to the Saint in Ajmer Sharif; but his main goal was to meet the most powerful man sitting in New Delhi – Chief Executive of India.

I don’t believe for a minute, that Asif Ali Zardari got up one morning and decided to go to India for a ‘private visit’ in name of Ajmer pilgrimage. I strongly believe that a lot of work and back channel discussions had taken place; and certain points in principle were agreed before he pronounced his intention to visit India.

Asif Ali Zardari’s critics claim he is not an educated man, and not suitable to play the role he is playing. However, he has proved that he is more than a match to those who are educated and have years of experience in politics, in army and in bureaucracy and in government. He has outmanoeuvred everyone; and survived all the attacks on him on his party and the government. Peoples Party government, despite record breaking corruption, disastrous governance, numerous scandals, Supreme Court cases and judgements, acts of violence and terrorism in the country, civil war, external attacks and above all serious stand off with the army establishment have survived; and seems to be winning every battle and that is just because of strong nerve and planning of Asif Ali Zardari.

When every one was saying that he had fled the country in December 2011, I predicted in my article written on 11 December 2011, ‘Zardari will return in a style’, which stated: ‘In view of the above, in my opinion, Asif Zardari is out of danger and he will return to Pakistan in a style; and possibly with more power and influence. His return and increased power and influence will weather the political storm; and will help him to plan his second tenure as a President.’

After his return from Dubai, he was more confident and more assertive; and he carefully planned his future stratefies. He has established that there is no rival to him in the Pakistani politics; but that alone is insufficient to win battles in future. He has to leave his mark on the international level as well. In the past few years he has shown some understanding of the international affairs; and has already made some impact by improving relations with Iran, China and Russia. But this will not bring him the glory he has in mind; and the situation he knows he might land himself in, in near future, so for this purpose a private visit to Delhi was must.

This visit which was apparently made for the purpose of a ‘pilgrimage’ acquired a great political significance and was treated as a summit meeting; and summits are always held after considerable preparation from both sides. Both leaders expressed satisfaction with the talks; and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was willing “to find practical and pragmatic solutions on all issues”.

He also expressed his willingness to visit Islamabad; of course, he would only come when substantial progress is made on outstanding issues. He would visit as an invited guest of Pakistan and would not come under the disguise of visiting Sikh holy Shrines situated in Pakistan. Manmohan Singh’s statement that they will find ‘practical and pragmatic solution’ clearly suggests that principles and so called principled and official stands are no more relevant in current situation of bilateral contacts between the two countries.

Asif Ali Zardari knew the challenges he faced at home. He knew what happened to Nawaz Sharif when he started his peace initiative with India, while the army command was not fully on board; so before leaving for India he also had a meeting with the Army Chief. It looks that he had a green signal from the power centre of Pakistan, and it suggests that there is a change of heart in senior army circles as well.

Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, has his own problems with regard to peace with Pakistan because of the past bitter experience. However, it is a good sign that he had support of former Indian foreign minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, a party known to have an anti-Pakistan image. Some analysts think Manmohan Singh might have some problems from his own party; and they base this view on the fact that Sonia Gandhi was absent from the lunch hosted by the Prime Minister in honour of the Pakistani President.

I would not go along with that view. Sonia Gandhi has played her political inning without accepting any official position in the government. She knows her son Rahul Gandhi is still in a process of finding his place in the Indian political system; and it was more important that he was present in the lunch to make his presence felt. In presence of Sonia Gandhi, young Rahul Gandhi would have been overshadowed; and caring and political minded mother had to think of his son’s political future.

The lunch provided an opportunity to Rahul Gandhi to get desperately needed limelight, especially after dismal Congress performance in the provincial elections. He not only exchanged views with the political ace of Pakistan; but also built friendly ties with Bilawal Zardari, a man who is under training to play a role in politics of this region. Sonia Gandhi knew both young leaders will have to work together to play a crucial role in determining future of this region.

President Zardari never regarded India as enemy of Pakistan. He wanted to shun politics of the past, and start a new era of peace that both countries could face challenges of the 21st century. Political situation at home did not allow him to proceed with his plans; and he had to fight lengthy and bitter fights with different power centres in Pakistan. In my view, because of internal and external factors he now has upper hand. This new attitude was reflected in the statement of General Kayani, when he was speaking to the media during his visit to the Gayari sector in Siachin, he said:

“We in the army understand very well that there should be a very good balance between defence and development. You cannot be spending on defence alone and forgetting about development. Ultimately, the security of a country is not only that you secure boundaries and borders but it is when people that live in the country feel happy, their needs are being met. Only in that case will a country be truly safe… And therefore we would like to spend less on defence; definitely…..more focus should be on the welfare of the people.” 1n my view, that is a remarkable change. In the past, army used to take lion’s share of resources. The above statement clearly indicates a change of heart; and that is a good omen for the peace, stability and prosperity of the region. Perhaps the ruling elite in Pakistan have understood that they could not continue with their past policies; and keep Pakistan as a nation state – a state which should be in peace with itself and its neighbours.

President Zardari wants to make most of this change and, at least, reach agreement on certain disputes with India. Perhaps he can resolve disputes of Sir Creek and Siachin Glacier in near future (Siachin is situated in the State of Jammu and Kashmir; and decision on this alone might get some criticism). War over control of Siachin Glacier has consumed more than 8 thousands human lives from both sides and billions of rupees. Wise voices from both sides of the divide wanted some solution to this costly war which could not be won by any side. By resolving this dispute they could have utilized the resources to alleviate poverty, hunger, and provide clean water and medicine to millions of the people; alas, rulers of both countries had other priorities and peace and welfare of the ordinary people was not on top of their priority list.

Gayari tragedy that happened on the Pakistani controlled Siachin Glacier, once, again put pressure on rulers of the both countries to resolve this dispute on priority bases. Good thing is that prominent leader and two times Prime Minister of Pakistan, during his visit to the tragedy spot courageously declared that the Siachin dispute must be resolved; and that Pakistan should take lead in this matter. President Zardari also has similar views on this topic and said: “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people.”

Despite these good intentions road to peace is full of mine fields. There are powerful groups which have ability to derail the peace process. Issues related of Hafiz Saeed and LeT and export of terrorism are also thorny issues and need to be handled with care and sincerity.

Of course, there is a big and sentimental issue – a dispute about future status of former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is forcibly divided between India and Pakistan. Not only India and Pakistan don’t know what to do with this dispute; unfortunately people of Jammu and Kashmir are also divided and are not sure what they want, as different regions have different aspirations.

The State is multi religious and multi ethnic; and some regions have either majority of one religion or the other, and tolerance level has become very low. To some people it is a religious struggle, to others it is a political struggle. Some people want to join India, others wants to join Pakistan. Perhaps, some people are happy with the status quo, however, if there is an impartial plebiscite held in the entire state the majority will opt for an independent Jammu and Kashmir.

This option of united and independent Jammu and Kashmir of the entire State may not suit New Delhi and Islamabad; so they have to come up with a plan that is suitable to both countries and the majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It is not an easy task; perhaps they agree to make some changes to the existing status and then leave it like this for a specified period, and then let the future leaders take the final decision.

If President Zardari, who is famous for making deals, can make some deals with New Delhi over some of the disputes discussed above; and provide some relief to the anxious Pakistani people and flood the market with cheap Indian goods, he might pave the way for the next PPP victory, or at least next term for himself.

However, I have a further question in my mind. Did President Zardari only go there to have some deal with the New Delhi on the issues discussed above or there was some other agenda as well. I have never met this astute man – a man who plans his strategy well and execute it with care and courage. He is the man with Machiavellian shrewdness, who has ability to plan things for years to come; and fight his corner bravely and cunningly.

He knows what storms are gathering inside and around Pakistan. He also knows that situation in Pakistan is unpredictable, and no one knows exactly what will happen next. But he knew that he had a plan for the control of Punjab, either with the existing structure, or by dividing it; and that would have serious repercussions.

President Zardari also knows that ruling Pakistan with the present structure is not an easy task; so he envisages some structural changes. I believe one important item on the agenda was the role of India viz a viz Pakistan, if the country is embroiled in some kind of war; or faces a situation similar to that of 1971.

Writer is a political analyst and author of many books and booklets. Also he is Director Institute of Kashmir Affairs. Email:drshabirchoudhry@gmail.com (ANI)