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Please let’s trust this man

Last weekend Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari surprised everyone at the HT Leadership Summit, when he promised over a video link that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India. Amit Baruah elaborates.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 20:07 IST
Amit Baruah

Last weekend Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari surprised everyone at the

HT Leadership Summit

— and shocked the establishment back home — when he promised over a video link that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India. There’s little doubt that Zardari had turned Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine on its head. His statement also placed him at odds with an army that has consistently refused to give a no-first use commitment as far as nuclear weapons are concerned.

Pakistan has consistently argued that its nuclear deterrent was small as compared to India and so it couldn’t extend a no-first use commitment. New Delhi, on the other hand, has a no-first use pledge as the core of its nuclear doctrine.

In 1999, at the height of the Kargil war, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad and then Minister for Religious Affairs Raja Zaffar-ul-Haq threatened to use any weapon against India. But to go down the labyrinth of nuclear doctrines would not be doing justice to what Zardari said on Saturday. By saying that Pakistan would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, the president was signalling his positive strategic intent towards India. And this benign strategic approach towards India has been consistent. Addressing a Tehelka summit in London in June, Zardari suggested the ‘India-China model’ of improving relations while addressing the border dispute should be applied to India and Pakistan as well.

In October, Zardari had told The Wall Street Journal: “India has never been a threat to Pakistan. I, for one, and our democratic government are not scared of Indian influence abroad.” A ‘shocking’ statement for a Pakistani leader. Even in India, the feeling was that Zardari had gone too far and could end up undermining his own position. An official Pakistani statement later denied the president’s comments. But Pakistan’s Sindhi president is all for rapprochement with India and wants to improve relations with a big historically ‘troublesome’ neighbour.

The central question for India-Pakistan relations is this: after a new government takes power in India next year, can Zardari deliver on some of the promised intent to improve India-Pakistan relations? There’s little doubt that he, along with the army, are key players in the country’s power structure. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, on the other hand, is a bit player, who owes his job to Zardari. In a sense, Zardari is not unlike Pervez Musharraf: a Pakistani President who holds total sway over the PM who, under the country’s 1973 Constitution, is the chief executive. But, Gilani, though freely and fairly elected, is like Musharraf’s PMs — Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Shaukat Aziz — who owed their position to the President. All this is critical to the process of delivery in India-Pakistan relations. With whom should New Delhi engage? Who can deliver? In the civilian sphere, it’s pretty obvious that that man is President Zardari.

To negotiate a no-first use of nuclear weapons accord or to relax the rigid visa regime, the Pakistani Army needs to be on board. Its demonstrated resistance in cleansing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate is a pointer that tension still persists in military-civilian relations.

One of the problems India faces is in gauging the mood of the military. With Musharraf it was easy. He was both President and Army Chief. India has no interface with Army Chief Parvez Kayani and there seems no immediate possibility of opening a much-needed direct dialogue.

Other than the persons and institutions involved in both Pakistan and India, events will also determine how far and how quickly the two countries can push ahead with the task of rapprochement. Pakistan faces a far more crippling economic crisis than India. It is in the middle of its most serious battle with Islamist extremists, a battle being shepherded by the US and its Western allies.

The Pakistani Army’s ability to deliver in the battle against terrorists, the Paksitani State’s capacity to retain its sovereignty in the face of mounting attacks on its soil by foreign forces, and the political battle to challenge the jehadi mindset are all critical to India-Pakistan relations. These are all umbilically linked to India’s own concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan. If Pakistan is able to deliver on these, then the future of India-Pakistan relations can only get brighter. A future Barack Obama administration and Washington’s Pakistan policy will also have a bearing on what India and Pakistan are able to achieve together.

A dramatic, ‘umbrella’ settlement between India and Pakistan is unnecessary given the political challenges that the two countries are currently facing. What’s needed are small steps to make a big settlement redundant.