It's not often that run-of-the-mill politicians rise above petty self-interest, and even more rarely that they propose grand ideas and expansive visions. But when they do venture to think out of the box and offer worthy proposals, these must be heartily welcomed -- no matter what their motives and however suspect their calculations.
It's to this category that the pronouncements of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in his recent interview to the Wall Street Journal belong. Zardari has done what no other Pakistani ruler has ever mustered the courage to do. He has declared that India is no longer his country's arch-enemy. Indeed, he says, "India has never been a threat to Pakistan".
This is a proposition that a majority in the Pakistani establishment, including many supporters of the peace process with India, will vehemently reject. Like many in the Indian establishment who view Pakistan through a prism of adversity, they have long seen India in inimical terms. For many of them, systemic hostility towards India is part of the very self-definition or identity of the Pakistani state and its reason for existence. Their posture demands strategic symmetry with India despite the fact that it's seven times bigger than Pakistan.
Zardari's is a truly extraordinary statement -- not so much because it captures the strategic reality or represents an accurate political assessment, but because it shows an intent to terminate Pakistan's all-encompassing six decades-long strategic hostility with India, which has taken the form of a continuous hot-cold war for most of this period, including three-and-a-half bloody military engagements (counting the Kargil conflict).
Zardari says he and his "democratic government" are not "scared of Indian influence abroad". He has called Kashmir's militant separatists "terrorists". (The "terrorist" description has since been retracted by a spokesperson of his Pakistan People's Party, but the rest of the statement stands.) He also says he has no objection to India's nuclear deal with the US -- so long as Pakistan is treated "at par": "Why should we begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracies in the world?"
No other Pakistani leader has lavished such generous compliments upon India. More, Zardari makes Pakistan's "economic survival" conditional upon better ties and trade with India. He says there's no other strategy "for nations like us". Within his scheme of things, economic relations with India would be the key to Pakistan's prosperity. Its cement factories would cater to India's huge infrastructure needs, its textile mills would produce denim cloth to feed India's demand, and Pakistani ports would help India relieve congestion at its own ports.
Even progressive citizen-level initiatives like the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy have hesitated to outline such a vision of cooperation. And few Pakistani analysts would go as far as Zardari has in acknowledging India's emergence as a major economic power, vis-à-vis which Pakistan would play a naturally asymmetrical yet cooperative role.
We don't know what motivated Zardari to make these iconoclastic statements. He couldn't been enthused solely by his maiden meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or by his anxiety to obtain a $100 billion capital infusion into Pakistan's economy, for which he needs to appear friendly to India. He must have known that such pronouncements would draw flak from the domestic opposition, as well as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, with which the PPP has an uneasy alliance. Zardari may not be an experienced leader, but he's far too street-smart to issue statements without knowing their consequences.
Zardari, admittedly, is a politician with an unsavoury reputation. He has long been called 'Mr Ten Percent', because of his (and his late wife Benazir Bhutto's) alleged involvement in countless scandals, from the purchase of Polish tractors to French jets, from spectacular tax evasion to imports of all manner of goods including gold, the buying of a enormous villa in Surrey, England and stashing millions away in overseas banks.
Corruption apart, Zardari and Bhutto cut shady US-brokered deals with former President Pervez Musharraf, under which they were granted amnesty from criminal charges so they could return to Pakistan. The quid pro quo was that Bhutto would accept the General as President and become the civilian face of government -- in what Pakistani analysts have termed a 'praetorian democracy'.
Even worse, Zardari's recent election as President with the power to make crucial appointments and dismiss elected governments/legislatures weakens parliamentary democracy. It's beyond dispute that Zardari enjoys his present powerful position only because he happens to be Bhutto's husband. That doesn't speak of his independent credibility.
Can he be trusted to implement the ideas he has just outlined? He isn't a man of his word. He has reneged on the pledges of the Murree Declaration signed last February with Nawaz Sharif, including the reinstatement of dismissed judges. It's hard to argue that his vision of a non-adversarial relationship with India is shared by the military, which remains the final arbiter of Pakistan's fate and must come on board.
Yet, beyond a point, these questions are irrelevant. What matters is that Zardari, as Pakistan's President with formal legitimacy, stuck his neck out by making a landmark overture to India at a critical, make-or-break, juncture in Pakistan's history. However obliquely, this reflects two views that have gained currency in Pakistan, as I noted during a recent visit there and through discussions with many Pakistani analysts.
First, there's strong across-the-board support for the peace process with India, and every policymaker believes Pakistan cannot possibly handle tensions along its Eastern border with India when its Western border is burning under the combined impact of a pro-Taliban insurgency and the US-led war in Afghanistan which is spilling over into its restive tribal areas.
Second, perceptive Pakistanis believe their country has a great stake in intensified economic relations with India, which is seen as a growing economic power. Official trade between the two has doubled over two years and there's boundless scope for further growth. One vehicle for such growth is the recent India-Pakistan agreement to resume overland trade across the Punjab and Sindh borders, which will reintegrate these regions after decades.
India has nothing to lose by pursuing a dialogue on Zardari's ideas and building a climate for reconciliation and reaching out to a wider audience. If India could talk to General Musharraf, there's an even stronger reason why it should reciprocate Zardari's overture. Contrariwise, India has a huge stake in ending its rivalry with Pakistan. South Asia's future of hinges on this.
Pakistan today faces its greatest existential crisis since 1947 -- far graver than the traumatic separation of Bangladesh. Every institution of governance in Pakistan is in advanced decay. Pakistan's endemic political instability has been aggravated by its shaky ruling coalition, which could soon fall apart. The economy is in dire straits, with inflation at 25 percent, the rupee below a historic Rs 78 to the US dollar, GDP growth slowed, crippling power shortages, and foreign exchange reserves barely enough to pay for two months' imports.
Pakistan's Western border has become dangerously unstable. The West's phenomenally inept prosecution of the Afghanistan war, with missile and drone strikes across the border killing scores of civilians, has bred unprecedented resentment to a point where 'positive' or 'mixed' feelings towards al-Qaeda (22 percent) outweigh negative feelings (19 percent), say polls.
The September 20 Marriott Hotel bombing, called Pakistan's 9/11, was a turning point, which brought home the deadly reality of indigenous jehadi terrorism. It was the 11th suicide bombing this year, which raised the death-toll in such attacks to over 300. Last year, 3,599 people perished in terrorism-related violence, two-and-a-half times the number in 2006.
Meanwhile, insurgencies are flourishing in the North-West Frontier Province, the tribal areas along the Afghan border and in Baluchistan, and separatism is growing in Sindh. The horrible prospect of Pakistan falling apart under their impact and becoming "a nuclearised Yugoslavia in the making" can no longer be dismissed as an alarmist fantasy.
The US bears a huge responsibility for the crisisnot least because it has conducted the war in Afghanistan primarily as a hunt for al-Qaeda, not as an operation to stabilise and reconstruct that devastated country by building viable institutions. The US myopically backed Gen Musharraf till the very end, and imposed bad political deals upon Pakistan, thus undermining its organic democratisation led by civil society mobilisation.
India can help Pakistan generously in its hour of crisis -- if it builds a relationship with it independent of the US. India must thin out troops in the Kashmir Valley, offer Pakistan security cooperation and joint projects in Afghanistan -- thus decisively defusing the Cold War-style mutual rivalry in that country, and supply petroleum products and other scarce materials.
Above all, India should unilaterally allow duty-free imports of all goods from Pakistan. The Indian economy can easily bear this. The extent of goodwill that such moves will create cannot be exaggerated, nor the political gains from a stable, secure Pakistan.