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Between the line

A bit more patience
January 14 , 2009


I telephoned Nawaz Sharif, the Muslim League chief, not only to wish him a Happy New Year but also to emphasise upon him to take the initiative to cool the charged atmosphere following the terrorist attack on Mumbai. He was concerned but sounded helpless. I told him it seemed as if the army was again in control. He said: “That is Zardari Sahib’s doing.”

Democracies, however fragile, have to deliver. Otherwise, they are seen a façade of an establishment which wields power without responsibility. It is the ruling Pakistan People’s Party which the voters returned. It is answerable to them, not those behind the scenes. President Asif Ali Zardari who asserted himself in the first few days of coming to power has gone the same way as his predecessors did, sparkling first and then losing the shine.

Zardari got a standing ovation when his views were telecast live before a distinguished audience at Delhi. The same Zardari seems to have become a spokesman of the forces which do not take kindly to India. He should realise that he has the popular verdict behind him, not those who have come to wield power. Why does this happen in Pakistan? People elect a government and that government allows control by the armed forces. It has been the same story since the creation of Pakistan.

Left to him, I was confident that Zardari would have handled the terrorist attack differently. Without waiting for evidence from India he would have rounded up the suspects and prosecuted them. But I have been proved wrong. He has initiated a war of words and finds no objection to Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani receiving the visiting political leaders and senior bureaucrats.

The material or the evidence which India has transmitted to Pakistan is more or less the same which America has sent after the FBI probe. Rejecting evidence as “insignificant” or “incredible” is a bit hasty. There is also a contradiction in what the Pakistan High Commissioner says at Delhi and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary at Islamabad. The first remarks that his government is examining the material while the latter rejects India’s dossier outright. Telephone conversation between terrorists and their handlers—the tapes have been given to Pakistan—need a close scrutiny because among the handlers is a major general. Islamabad has also been given the full confession of Ajmal Amir Kasab, a terrorist caught, said to be a Pakistani.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s charge that the Pakistan uses terrorism as an instrument for state policy is too serious to be rejected as a baseless accusation. The Pakistani leadership should realise that Manmohan Singh is pointing his finger at the establishment which seems to have taken over in the name of security, defence or such other reason. Yet Zardari and Sharif represent democratic forces, people of Pakistan, and the two have to retrieve the country from the situation it is in. Sharif’s advice to his followers not to criticise the government in public is a sound one. Zardari needs to be strengthened so that he is able to take to task those who want to push Pakistan away from the democratic, liberal ethos that the elected government represents. But if the government defends the handlers it would lose sympathy. That is how Washington distanced itself from Islamabad after equating the two only a fortnight ago. 

At present, Islamabad has painted itself into a corner. First, it said that it had no extradition treaty with India to enable Pakistan to send the guilty across the border. Then the hawkish Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi said that India would be allowed to “grill” those detained. Now there is a complete U-turn. Islamabad has had no hesitation in handing over 500 ‘terrorists’ to America. Why not New Delhi which is an aggrieved party? The unfortunate part is that both countries have put trust in America, not in each other. Relations between the two countries are at such low ebb that either of them cannot do anything which is seen as if one is surrendering to the other.

Scoring points is one thing but taking the realities into account is another. The reality is that India is far from satisfied with what Pakistan has done so far to heal the wounds inflicted during the terrorist attack. Some 200 people were killed and roughly $5 billion was lost in terms of business, tourism and foreign investment. That Pakistan itself is a target of terrorism or that Benazir Bhutto was a casualty does not assuage the feelings of those who have lost their relations or friends.

My impression is that Pakistan failed to assess India’s anger. The entire India saw the attack and the killings on television for 60 hours. Those incidents are etched in people’s mind. Still worse is their fear that Pakistan may get away with the Mumbai carnage as it did after the attack on the Indian parliament in 2002. India stationed even troops at the border for one year but nothing came out of it.

Manmohan Singh is under attack for not putting enough pressure on Pakistan to “deliver.” A group of intellectuals met the Prime Minister the other day to convey their disappointment over the “lack of action.” Inside the Congress itself, there are leaders who want him to do “something.” They are worried over the negative fallout on the Lok Sabha elections in April-May if nothing was done before that. In fact, he has shown exemplary patience and courage to withstand challenges and even chidings. His restraint is a silver lining in the clouds of hostilities hovering over the two countries. Yet he may not be able to withstand the pressure for too long.

The manner in which the diplomatic pressure is being exerted on Pakistan has retrieved the stock of Manmohan Singh’s government to a large extent. But if it does not work, what happens then? The hasty reply from Pakistan has only aggravated the situation. 

The real problem is terrorism, not war which Manmohan Singh has ruled out again and again. Now that the Mumbai operation has rehabilitated the military in the eyes of Pakistanis it should allow the elected government to function on its own. Zardari may then take up his agenda of good relations with India. What Islamabad does not realise is that the people in India will turn against its own government if it is not seen to be standing up to the challenge that terrorists have posed.

Yet things can go out of hand when people on this side of the border say “enough is enough.” A bit more patience may give time to the world powers, including America and China, to ensure punishment to the perpetrators.

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