President Asif Ali Zardari still remembers his first meeting with Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh that took place in 2008. Within a few days of assuming the presidency on September 9, 2008, Mr Zardari travelled to New York to address the UN General Assembly and he met Dr Singh on its sidelines. But the Indian prime minister quite literally shocked the Pakistani president by politely asking in their first ever meeting: “Mr President, is it possible for you to extradite Dawood Ibrahim to India?” The president replied then, coolly: “My dear sir, I have just replaced a military dictator who ruled Pakistan for eight long years. Let’s begin a new relationship by discussing small issues first, like Siachen, Kori Creek and water before taking up bigger issues.” President Zardari shared the memories of his first meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh recently with some of his friends, adding that he had returned to Pakistan contentedly, carrying new hopes. Within a few days of that meeting, the president hosted a dinner for members of parliament at the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad [on September 20, 2008]. However, at the last minute, he shifted the venue of the dinner to the prime minister’s house, perhaps smelling a conspiracy. A suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden truck into the hotel building that evening, killing over 50 people.
Shortly after the Marriott bombing, then director-general of the ISI Lt-Gen. Nadeem Taj was replaced with Lt-Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha. And two months later, the Mumbai attacks happened. The only surviving attacker who was captured alive — Ajmal Kasab — eventually turned out to be a Pakistani national who was allegedly dispatched by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Subsequently, the small goodwill created by the Pakistani president and the Indian prime minister in their first meeting had gone with the wind. Zardari and Singh never had a chance to see each other after that.
The two leaders are meeting again after a long break today, in New Delhi. President Zardari is visiting India to pay his respects at the dargah of the great Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. But the media on both sides of the border, as well as some politicians, are perhaps expecting too much. And the main reason for this is the scheduled lunch between Manmohan Singh and Asif Zardari. The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly has criticised the president’s visit as have several religious parties — the latter saying that it follows the recent bounty announcement by America for Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray also has warned the president from coming to Ajmer, reminding him that former dictator Pervez Musharraf lost power after he visited it.
The president has told his close aides that his Ajmer trip (he went there in April 2005 with Benazir Bhutto after his release from prison) was purely a private visit. But when the Indian prime minister came to know of it, he invited him for a lunch out of courtesy. The president accepted the invitation and added that he was ready to discuss anything with the Indian premier.
As for the bounty announcement, which comes a few days before today’s visit, the timing of the US action may have something to do with it wanting to pressure Islamabad — through India — to ensure restoration of the suspended Nato supply route. Also, there is now increasing pressure building up within India demanding that Dr Singh raise the issue of Hafiz Saeed with President Zardari during today’s lunch. One would expect President Zardari to tell Dr Singh that twice the government proceeded against Mr Saeed in the courts but failed, and that the courts are giving a tough time to not only his prime minister but also to the powerful intelligence agencies of the country and that if credible evidence is given and passed on to the courts, Hafiz Saeed will not be spared. President Zardari has been advised by the Foreign Office that he can respond by suggesting that India also hold the trial of former military Intelligence officer Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit who has been arrested for involvement in the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta Express.
Perhaps, President Zardari can ask Dr Singh to send his cricket team to Pakistan in the coming winter so that both the leaders can watch the match together in a Pakistan stadium. Yes, President Zardari is, at the very least, going to invite Prime Minister Singh to come to Pakistan to watch a cricket match.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2012.