Even by Asif Ali Zardari’s immensely imaginative calendar, Easter Sunday the 8th of April must have been a record of sorts: Eating breakfast in Lahore, lunch in Delhi and tea at the hallowed shrine of Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer doesn’t come easily to most South Asians.
Of course, Mr Zardari is no ordinary citizen of South Asia. His life history, warts and all, is well-known in the region — a famous woman’s husband, a prisoner, perhaps a playboy, and for the last several years certainly one of the most interesting leaders that Pakistan has had the fortune of bringing to power.
Certainly, too, the panache and derring-do that Mr Zardari has displayed with such admirable candour all these years came in handy this Easter Sunday, as he flew into Delhi, drove straight to Manmohan Singh’s residence and proceeded to — without as much as a by-your-leave — yank him out of the stupor that coalition politics sometimes tend to bring on in India.
What an amazing day Sunday was! For much of the last year, India’s prime minister has been buffeted by the slings and arrows of political misfortune, as scam after scam was unearthed from right under his nose. Manmohan Singh was supposed to be the economic messiah who could do no wrong. Only, he has looked weaker and unhappier as the seasons went by, perhaps wondering how he could salvage a legacy only he believed in.
That’s when Mr Zardari walks onto the stage, much too miraculous to cue, and invites him to Pakistan before the end of 2012. Manmohan Singh accepts. Just like that.
For just one second, think of all the consequences such a simple gesture has pulled into play. First, there is the real resumption of dialogue that was broken off by the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Second, if the PM has to go to Pakistan, the Pakistani government has to make some real progress on the terror accused — which means that Zardari and General Kayani could soon have a really interesting conversation.
If Manmohan Singh has to go to Pakistan, India will have to sooner than later open all the gates to paradise. That is, liberalise the visa regime for civilians and businessmen, lift the ban on investments and remove or reduce tariffs on goods Pakistan wants to export to India, sign Sir Creek and get the Indian troops off Siachen.
In other words, stitch together the idea of a “normal” relationship between neighbours with elements that allows each side to rediscover the other.
Just listen to this: The day after Zardari’s visit to India, the Supreme Court granted bail to Pakistani microbiologist Khaleel Chishty, a man serving a life-sentence for a murder he most likely did not commit. The Ajmer trial court had prolonged the trial for 18 years. Chishty had come to Ajmer in 1992 to meet his ailing mother.
The fact is that Zardari is giving us the opportunity to become normal nations. He’s forcing Manmohan Singh, otherwise much too preoccupied with dealing with the perception that he heads a government that is increasingly weak, to act in the direction of normalisation. He’s persuading all of us to sit up, look at all the problems we insist on not resolving — from Kashmir to Siachen and Sir Creek — and telling us to get a life.
The next six months belong to the people of India and Pakistan. It’s up to us to decide what we make of this opportunity. If we squander it by interminable bickering, we only have ourselves to blame. But, aha, what if we don’t?
Watch this space in my next column!
Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2012.