An ability for fresh thinking on Pakistan's relations with India and an inability to initiate a change of policy in line with the new thinking have been the defining characteristics of Asif Ali Zardari ever since he took over the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27,2007.
2. The first sign of his ability for fresh thinking came in an interview given by him to Karan Thapar, the TV journalist, (reported on March 1,2008), in which he spoke of the need to break with Pakistan's past policy of linking the issue of bilateral trade with India with the Kashmir issue so that the continuing deadlock over the Kashmir issue did not come in the way of the normalisation of the trade relations between the two countries. The business class in Pakistan has long been in favour of delinking the trade issue from the Kashmir issue. During the second tenure of Benazir as the Prime Minister (1993-96), this had also been recommended by a committee of officials of Pakistan's Ministry of Commerce, but it recommendations remained a non-starter due to strong opposition not only from the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif, but also from the Pakistan Foreign Office.
3. Zardari's interview was followed by the usual criticism from the political class. An attempt was made to create an impression as if he was planning to dilute the traditional Pakistani stand on the Kashmir issue. As a result, his remarks on the subject were portrayed by his own party as misinterpreted and any intention to break with the past policy was vehemently denied.
4. The second sign of his ability for fresh thinking came with regard to any role for India on the Afghanistan issue. The policy till now has been to question the legitimacy of any Indian interests in Afghanistan, to project the growing Indian economic and other non-military assistance to Afghanistan as directed against Pakistan, to oppose India's request for rights of transit trade with Afghanistan through Pakistan and to rule out any role for India in any multilateral talks on Afghanistan.
5. In comments made by him before his election as the President, he spoke of the desirability of a regional conference on Afghanistan to restore peace in that country and, in that context, mentioned India as one of the possible participants in such a conference if it materialises. His references to Afghanistan came in the context of what he projects as the need for a multi-pronged policy in the fight against jihadi terrorism of the Taliban-Al Qaeda kind emanating from this region.
6. A careful study of his statements and remarks on Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism would indicate the following nuances:
He agrees on the need for close counter-terrorism co-operation with the US, but wants this co-operation to be recrafted and re-projected in such a manner as not to aggravate the growing wave of jihadi terrorism in Pakistani territory---whether by Pakistani or foreign groups.
He understands the need for effective action against jihadi terrorism in Pakistani territory, but wants such action to be seen by his people as the outcome of Pakistani initiatives through Pakistani forces and capabilities and not as at the behest of the US with the help of US assistance and with US operational co-operation. He does not want Pakistani action against its own terrorists to be perceived by its people as influenced by the US and as part of any regional initiative. In his perception, the jihadi terrorism in Pakistani territory is a Pakistani problem and not a regional or international problem.
At the same time, he views the continuing terrorism of the Taliban and Al Qaeda against the US and other NATO forces in Afghan territory as not just an Afghan problem, but as also a regional and even an international problem. It is also his view that without the restoration of peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan's own counter-terrorism efforts in its territory will not succeed. It is in that context that he talks of a regional conference on Afghanistan to discuss various options and is prepared to consider the participation of India in such a conference.
7. Surprisingly, his remarks on possible Indian participation in a regional conference on Afghanistan did not create in Pakistan the kind of criticism that his remarks on Kashmir did. At the same time, they were not welcomed either. His ideas have remained without a follow-up---either positive or negative.
8. The latest sign of his ability for fresh thinking was seen in a report carried by the "Wall Street Journal" (October 5,2008) on a discussion which he had with one of its journalists. He made a number of positive observations on relations with India during the discussion. To quote from the report carried by the paper:
'India has never been a threat to Pakistan. I, for one, and our democratic government is not scared of Indian influence abroad."
"He spoke of the militant groups operating in Kashmir as 'terrorists'."
"Replying to a question, Zardari said he had no objection to the India-US nuclear cooperation pact so long as Pakistan is treated 'at par'.'Why would we begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracies,' he asked."
"While seeking better ties with New Delhi he noted, 'There is no other economic survival for nations like us. We have to trade with our neighbours first.'He imagines Pakistani cement factories being constructed to provide for India's huge infrastructure needs, Pakistani textile mills meeting Indian demand for blue jeans, Pakistani ports being used to relieve the congestion at Indian ones."
9.In response to criticism from the PML and some sections of the ruling coalition, the Ministry of Information, apparently with his approval, stepped in the next day and ruled out any change in Pakistan's policy towards India on the Kashmir issue. A statement issued by Sherry Rehman, the Minister For Information, said: "Pakistan is committed to the Kashmiri people's right for self-determination. The President had made it very clear that the just cause of Kashmir and its struggle for self-determination has been a consistent central position of the (ruling) Pakistan People's Party for the last 40 years. There has been no change in this policy.The President has never called the legitimate struggle of Kashmiris an expression of terrorism, nor has he downplayed the sufferings of the Kashmiris. All his statements on India should be viewed in the context of Pakistan's current bilateral relations with that country. The Government is firmly committed to extending moral and diplomatic support to the just cause of Kashmiris for their right of self-determination".
10. What to make of this flip-flop? It would be incorrect to interpret it as indicative of his insincerity. What it does indicate is that while his instincts in relation to India seem to be refreshingly different from those of his predecessors----even from those of Benazir who instigated terrorism in Kashmir when she was the Prime Minister---- his grasp of the ground realities in Pakistan is weak. The ground realities are determined by four entrenched mindsets, which have always been opposing any fresh thinking on the relations with India. These entrenched mindsets are those of the Army, the intelligence community, the Foreign Office and sections of the political class with a close nexus to the Army and the intelligence community.
11. Unless these entrenched mindsets are made to change, new thinking alone, however welcome, will remain just loud-thinking without any follow-up action. To be able to translate any new thinking into action, Zardari has tro stabilise his position as the President, acquire a popular image and acquire the ability to enforce his will on these entrenched mindsets. No previous political leader of Pakistan was able to acquire such an ability and had to ultimately bow to pressure from the Army, the intelligence community and the Foreign Office.
12. In India too, we have had such entrenched mindsets in the Army, the intelligence community and the Foreign Office. It goes to the credit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he has gradually been able to bring about a change in these mindsets whether in relation to India's ties with Pakistan or the US----though not yet in relation to China.
13. Zardari has been the President hardly for a month and it is too early to say whether he would be able to bring about such a change in the mindsets. India has to keep patience with him without expecting quick policy changes. At the same time, it should not lower its guard till the ultimate reality emerges---- is it refreshingly new or more of the same as seen in the past?
14. The current position in Pakistan is complicated by the emergence of a fourth important power ---- Al Qaeda. The future of Pakistan is going to be determined by a configuration of four As---Allah, the Army, America and Al Qaeda. The outcome of the fight between the Army and America on the one side and Al Qaeda on the other will determine whether Zardari's tenure will see a change for the better or the worse in Pakistan.(9-10-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )