Given the very tenuous nature of our bilateral relations, any spectacular development on the Indo-Pak front is like jacking up fuel prices in these inflationary times. A roll-back is almost inevitable.
The bizarre twist to l’affaire Sarabjit Singh is but one example in a series of flip-flops that have negated positive trends and devalued the ongoing peace talks in the eyes of a largely skeptic public opinion. What’s worse is that it comes close on the heels of Islamabad backing away last month from signing a visa regime touted as a major confidence building step.
From all accounts, it’s evident that President Asif Ali Zardari capitulated on presidential pardon for Sarabjit in the face of unbridled attacks by right wing fundamentalists and a section of the media that drew parallels between the Indian prisoner sentenced to death for “terror attacks” in Lahore and Faisalabad, with Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 convict lodged in a Mumbai jail.
The volte-face was a blow as much for the credibility of the PPP regime as for the peace efforts, presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar having spent the entire day propagating that the man set to walk free was Sarabjit.
Babar’s late night clarification alluding to a mix-up with another prisoner Surjeet Singh made little sense as the latter was granted pardon way back in 1989 by the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. His case wasn’t before Zardari. But Sarabjit’s was. The Indian leadership had taken up the amnesty plea with Zardari some weeks ago when he came on a pilgrimage with son Bilawal to the Ajmer Dargah.
One can argue with a degree of conviction that Zardari personally wants better ties with India. But he’s hamstrung, like his slain wife Benazir Bhutto, by hawks in the military establishment and their anti-India proxies dominating the far right religio-political parties.
Proof of Zardari’s brittle hold over Indo-Pak relations he subsequently outsourced to the Army, together with Pak-US and Afpak affairs, was available in the early days of his Presidency. That was 2008 when Mumbai experienced 26/11.
Just four days before Pak-trained marauders wrought havoc in Mumbai, Zardari had pleasantly surprised New Delhi by assuring “no nuclear first use” against India at the HT Leadership Summit. Broken like pie-crusts, the promise never materialized, divorced as it was from Islamabad’s doctrine of neutralising India’s conventional military superiority through its nuclear deterrent.
In the aftermath of Mumbai — which independent Pakistani commentators termed Zardari’s Kargil in terms of its deleterious implications for Indo-Pak ties — the President and his since discarded Premier, Yusuf Raza Gilani, offered to dispatch ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha to India. But the Army would have none of it, making Zardari beat a retreat, claiming the assurance was for sending an ISI official, not the director general of the shadowy organisation.
The Rrst is history that often repeats itself — as farce and tragedy.