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HindustanTimes Wed,01 Oct 2014

Karan Thapar

A pilgrim's progress
Karan Thapar , Hindustan Times
April 14, 2012
First Published: 21:26 IST(14/4/2012)
Last Updated: 01:04 IST(15/4/2012)

I always suspected Asif Zardari's visit was more than a pilgrimage. A proposal he made to the PM at lunch suggests I was correct. The way forward for India and Pakistan, he said, is to emulate India and China by boosting trade.

This is a shorter form of something he first enunciated in an interview to 'Devil's Advocate' in March 2008. Asked how India and Pakistan can sort out Kashmir he said they should tackle this dispute the same way India and China are handling their border differences. Put it on the back burner for a later, wiser generation to handle and concentrate on boosting trade. This will increase trust and confidence and in the new environment Kashmir will be easier to resolve.

Sadly and foolishly in 2008 the Indian government ignored this proposal. Zardari is too new, too weak, too simple, our sceptics argued. They did not respond and their silence soon silenced him. Worse, it made him look silly in the eyes of his army who disagreed with his initiative.

In 2012, Zardari has revived the proposal and this time, it's widely believed, with the support of his army. Pakistan's economic desperation has convinced them. Also, Zardari has proved that he's a political survivor. His critics were wrong to write him off so easily.

Although this time Delhi is more rece-ptive, I fear many haven't appreciated the full import of what Zardari is saying.

This is not simply a redressal of Pakistan's aversion to trade with India or a fulfillment of a long-denied WTO commitment. It is, in fact, a radical change in Pakistan's attitude. It's nothing short of a U-turn.

So far, when asked why Pakistan won't handle the Kashmir dispute the way China handles its differences over Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh, Pakistani diplomats have explained it's because Kashmir is intrinsic to Pakistan's existence. It is, after all, the 'K' in the country's name. Ladakh and Arunachal don't matter in the same way to Beijing. This is why Kashmir is a 'core' issue. The border dispute with China is not.

It's this ideological position that Zardari is setting aside. The core is moving to the periphery. Whether this is a result of conviction, conversion or circumstances is a matter of detail. What counts is he's willing to do it.

The only hesitation on our side could arise from the question of whether this proposal pushes into the background our concern with terror. I suspect it does. But how much of an obstacle is that?

Think carefully. As things stand we're not satisfied with Pakistan's response. Either the government is unwilling or their courts, not unlike ours, are dragging their feet. Whatever the reason, we're frustrated.

Does Zardari's proposal offer better future prospects? I would say it does. It's the absence of trust that's the problem today. If that trust can be built through trade, we can expect improved results down the road. That's better than zero at the moment. 

Anyway, what's the alternative? Carry on as we are, cross our fingers and hope for the best. Quite frankly, that would be a triumph of hope over experience. It's most unlikely.

If Manmohan Singh is looking for an excuse to visit Islamabad, this deal is the best he could get. It might even be bigger than the nuclear deal because it will affect our lives today. It's not a promise for the future. It's a big offer for here and now.

Views expressed by the author are personal.


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