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The politics of pilgrimage

Zardari's India visit could have been with an eye on elections in Pakistan. Vinod Sharma writes.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2012 21:48 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
Vinod Sharma,Asif Ali Zardari,Benazir Bhutto

Asif Ali Zardari lacks Benazir Bhutto's erudition and charisma. He cannot boast even a fraction of her mass support. The best tribute to her came from her worst adversaries, some of whom wept after her assassination in 2007, admitting that politics would never be the same in Pakistan again.

That's why Zardari, who became president after the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) rode to power on popular outrage and sympathy over his wife's killing, was viewed as an usurper by a wide section of the party cadres.

What then made Zardari log a better record than his slain wife on the Indo-Pak front? Trade and Siachen aren't anymore linked by Islamabad with progress on Kashmir. The emphasis on the 'doable' among pending issues is writ as much in New Delhi subtly de-linking other bilateral business from Pakistan's poor record in going after the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks.

Compare this with Benazir's stints in power. Relations between our two countries had hit rock bottom, the PPP leader showing little vision, political will or risk-taking ability to mend ties. Much of her time was spent living down the myth of being pro-India. Resident Indian journalists were refused visas. Bilateral dialogue was largely disabled amid shrill rhetoric over Kashmir.

It's difficult to forget the disastrous foreign secretaries' level meeting soon after Benazir returned to power in 1994. Hers was a Kashmir-centric scorched-earth policy. I probed her about it when she was in India in 2003. Conceding the point, she promised to take better care next time.

That never happened. Benazir fell to the assassin's bullet four years down the line. She was brave but fortune didn't favour her. It favoured her equally doughty but a whole lot craftier spouse.

From his standpoint, Zardari, who chose a seven-year (1996-2004) incarceration on graft charges over buying peace with his wife's tormentors, has done exceptionally well to get so close to completing his term as president despite low popularity and the taint acquired during Benazir's stints as premier.

His visit to Ajmer was packaged as a pilgrimage. It was hard to miss, however, the political objective that drove him to the revered dargah in remembrance of Benazir, flaunting whose legacy the PPP has stalled probes into monies held in Swiss accounts in defiance of the top judiciary. The pretence: doing so would mean putting Benazir on trial posthumously. The reality: an honest probe could link the booty to the president.

Elections are due early next year in Pakistan. In all probability, it will see Bilawal's formal launch in electoral politics, the family having kept indoors in the February 2008 polls that followed Benazir's death. Every inch his mother's son, he couldn't have thought of optics better than he got in India to reaffirm the Bhutto lineage his father lacks.

The political jigsaw would fall in place if one reads the father-son duo's Ajmer sojourn with the Sindh card Zardari's playing by equating the Punjabi establishment's assaults on his presidency with Benazir's killing and Zulfikar Bhutto's "judicial murder." The picture gets even clearer upon factoring in the PPP's political stakes in Sindh and Punjab's Seraiki belt where the Sufi tradition is under attack from radical Islamic groups.

The enduring image, therefore, of the visit is that of the handsome Bhutto heir in the background while Zardari and his host, the Indian premier, briefly addressed the media. The question remains whether the people of Pakistan would favour the family at the hustings? Will the father step aside and the son step up?

First Published: Apr 09, 2012 21:44 IST