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Neighbour’s envy

columns Updated: Apr 24, 2008 01:42 IST

The battered Toyota spluttered through the sand, its frayed edges and peeling skin the perfect, but poignant, metaphor for the times. We were navigating our way through the rocky and barren desert of Sindh, today a glamorous byline for the globetrotting journalist, but for its own people, really just the poor country cousin of the greedy and mighty Punjab — a sort of step-child left behind at home to sweep the chimneys, while the rest of the family goes out to dance at the ball.

Benazir Bhutto, elevated to iconic martyrdom in her death, stared down at us from every wall, her Chanel glasses and Hermes headscarf tellingly out of place in the grime and muck of her ancestral village. But Larkana, home to two prime ministers, including Pakistan’s first popularly-elected leader (Zulfikar Bhutto), may as well have been Meerut or Moradabad, with its pot-holed roads, haphazard traffic and nondescript constructions. It was difficult to believe or understand how this underdeveloped and decrepit mofussil town was part of the grand Bhutto legacy. But any sceptical questions implying that Pakistan’s first family may not have done enough for its people were met with combative and unswerving loyalty and the suggestion that as outsiders, we did not understand that competitive politics had left Sindh forever on the leeward side of the development mountain.

And then, Sarfaraz, our determined and adventurous driver, asked us a tentative, searching question. What was the Indian rupee now worth, he wanted to know. As we answered, almost sheepish about sounding too boastful, he said ruefully, “Now my country has become worse-off than Bangladesh.” In the back of the car, we shifted uncomfortably at this new, politically-incorrect construct of subcontinental hierarchy. No, no, we protested falsely, keen to provide reassurances and succour that wasn’t ours to offer. But in that instant, we understood that the India-Pakistan relationship had shifted seismically.

Up until now, India has responded to Pakistan only along two extremes, often schizophrenically contained within the same person. Either we belong to Club Nostalgia (the sort who wave candles at Wagah and go on about how we are the ‘same people’) or we wear our loathing for the ‘enemy’ as a badge of national pride. But today, as we watch Pervez Musharraf’s confidence recede as sharply as his hairline and see ordinary Pakistanis collapse into guileless grief and naked fear, we know that the India-Pakistan paradigm has finally shifted beyond Partition, Punjabis and Kashmir.

After a week of travelling through Pakistan, I got the sense that four bitter wars with us later, its people have finally conceded the battle to the ‘idea of India’. Admittedly, our conversations are not with the mad mullah fringe. But within the mainstream of Pakistani opinion, there is an unmistakable lament for the death of democracy and pluralism. Benazir’s assassination has marked the end of the last liberal hope for the country’s moderates. Many friends talk about migrating to another land. And several party workers, clearly angered by the political hijacking of the country’s Election Commission, ask in almost naïve awe how often elections are rigged in India. I think to myself and remember — Kashmir in 1987, Haryana in 1989 and Bihar and Jharkhand more times than have been recorded — but then pause and say nothing. Because, being in Pakistan underscores what we don’t realise often enough — with all its warts, our democracy and secularism are what has kept us sane. And despite the eerie parallels between the Gandhis and the Bhuttos (the curse of violence, the aura of beauty and glamour, the family intrigues and estrangements, the streak of autocracy, the sense of political entitlement, the mass adulation and the undeniable courage), in this country, we would still never accept the leadership of the Congress party being bequeathed in a private will.

Sunil Khilnani first wrote about how an abstract progressive ideal welded the many contradictions of India together into workable nationhood. Pakistan today is in desperate search for a similar such idea — one that will enable it to survive, because the history that first gave it birth is today tortured and mangled beyond recognition.

And the worst is not yet over. The next few months will throw up all sorts of ominous questions that could pull at an already damaged edifice. Asif Zardari, famously called Mr Ten Percent after being slapped with corruption charges, has been re-invented as the grand new hope by an emotive media. But will Benazir’s diabolically charming husband self-destruct and take down the party with him? So far, Nawaz Sharif has played the role of the gracious compatriot. But will his Punjabi generosity be swiftly abandoned if the PPP sweeps the elections? Fundamentalist clerics have already issued fresh threats to the 19-year-old boy who has been forced into his mother’s shoes. Separatist sentiments have been strengthened in Sindh, Balochistan and Waziristan. And though the General who once dazzled the international media grows paler by the day (save the streak of mehndi that runs through his sparse hair), he still seems entirely missing in self-doubt. There is no doubt that there will be more blood on the streets before Pakistan’s wounds heal — if they heal at all.

We could gloat and say, we told you so. We could feel vindicated that a country whose various governments were historically defined by how they used violence against India may now be devoured by the monsters they created. We could condemn the many paradoxes of Benazir’s legacy and critically judge the hypocrisy of a politician who was part-Radcliffe liberal and part-Larkana feudal. We could choose to be unsentimental about someone who was simultaneously her country’s most moderate leader, but also a self-serving tactician who once provided a lifeline to the very Taliban that later threatened to kill her. All of it would be true. But all of it would also be terribly short-sighted and pointless. Because India cannot afford for Pakistan to tumble into greater darkness. And India can afford to be more generous about the past.

My abiding memory of Sindh is of huddling together under blankets in a generous stranger’s home over bootlegged whisky and heaps of kebabs. This time, the quintessential warmth that has for long been the trademark of people on either side was underlined by a marked curiosity for just how India managed to hold it all together. These were a people who were fearful about their own future, but still equanimous even about a country that must seem to them more formidable and possibly more hostile than ever before.

We don’t have to romanticise either Benazir or her country. But just this once, can we hold back on the sneering condescension and superior grandstanding? After all, as soldiers on either side will tell you, even ‘enemies’ fight by a code of honour.

(The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7)