For the first time, a Pakistani head of state promised a “no-first nuclear-strike” against India, talked of change and reconciliation, of shared bloodlines and the possibility of doing away with passports.
“I can assure you that Pakistan will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons),” said Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. “I hope that things never come to a stage where we have to even think about using nuclear weapons (against India).”
The statement came when Zardari was addressing the HT Leadership Summit on Saturday via a satellite link from his official residence in Islamabad. A student from Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College asked him: "Will you use nuclear weapons against India?"
Television host Karan Thapar, who was compering the session, interjected and asked Zardari if he was making a no-first-use assurance, something no Pakistani head of state has ever done (India has a no-first-use policy).
“If so, you have just made headline news,” Thapar told Zardari.
"Most certainly" responded the President, dressed in a dark business suit and bright tie, as he sat against the backdrop of a huge portrait of his slain wife Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
In his opening remarks, there was no reference to Kashmir; that came up only during the question-and-answer session. Zardari's emphasis was on economic and political cooperation. He also suggested some kind of regional cooperation for a non-nuclear South Asia.
Zardari borrowed a quote from his late wife, who once said that there's a "little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan" in every Indian.
"I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking to you today," Zardari said, amid applause from his high-profile audience, which included diplomats, politicians and industrialists.
At time emotional, at times witty, Zardari exuded warmth and positivity, using pithy one-liners to deflect tough queries.
He was asked: To which country does Kashmir belong? "It belongs to Kashmiris," he said.
In the context of one round of violence-free polling in Jammu and Kashmir, attributed by some to Pakistan's recent hands-off policy, he was asked whether he would ensure peaceful elections in the remaining rounds. See webcast
"The (Pakistan People's Party) PPP and its government have always had a hand-off policy towards India," he replied.
Telecast live from India by CNN-IBN, the Zardari session was picked up simultaneously by Pakistani news channels.
He told a questioner that Pakistan's Parliament has "pre-agreed" to friendly relations with India. He said he did not feel threatened because India was much bigger than Pakistan.
"We don't feel threatened by India. India should also not feel threatened by us," he said. "I want change and reconciliation."
Zadari said Pakistan's parliament already has a caucus for going into Indo-Pak issues, including furthering trade relations. He thought a matching response from New Delhi would help take matters further.
Asked about Pakistan's deteriorating economy and his country's dependence in the past on aid and assistance, he said: "We want to move from aid to trade." The President flagged his consensual approach in resolving complex issues by stating that rather than seeking to conquer his opponents, he believed in taking people along.
The President also talked of a common South Asian economic bloc with other countries. He suggested a "flexible Indo-Pak visa regime", eliminating the travel documents now required and replacing them with a smart-card enabled e-visa system.
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