Stuck in past
GIVEN the cloud of uncertainty hovering over his government and advancing years, it's doubtful if Manmohan Singh will realise his dream of visiting Pakistan before he leaves the South Block. Since the leadership of the great democracy was forced on him in rather unusual circumstances in 2004, Dr Singh, born in Gah in present-day Pakistan, hasn't made a secret of his wish to visit the land of his birth and achieve what has eluded his predecessors - a peace breakthrough with the neighbour.
Pakistan's leadership, present and past, has bent over backwards to invite the Indian leader time and time again. Last month President Zardari extended the invitation once again urging him to attend Guru Nanak's anniversary celebrations at Nankana Sahib only to be snubbed once again.
Meanwhile as Dr Singh, like the Prince of Denmark, takes his time to make up his mind in the last couple of years in office, someone else has snatched the initiative. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, one of India's most promising politicians and emerging contenders for Dr Singh's job, surprised many by undertaking a week-long trip to Pakistan. The Bihar leader, who lost little time in responding to the invitation of provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab and the federal government, was mobbed like a rock star wherever he went in Pakistan. The Hindu's Anita Joshua reports that the Bihar leader, sporting a traditional Sindhi cap and ajrak for the greater part of the first day in Karachi, quickly won the hearts and minds of his hosts. He repeatedly batted for stronger relations and greater economic and cultural partnership between India and Pakistan. Kumar also talked of the 'Bihar growth story' to emphasise why peace is essential for prosperity and growth, drawing fulsome praise from Imran Khan and others.
Interestingly, Kumar's party, Janata Dal is a key member of the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP. That however hasn't prevented him from passionately pitching for IndiaPakistan bonhomie and an inclusive polity and tolerance on both sides of the border. Kumar was recently in the news for warning his allies against projecting Gujarat's Modi as a candidate for the top job in 2014, arguing that a future leader must represent the nation's secular ethos and pluralism.
The Bihar leader plumped for the same values during his passage to Pakistan. On a visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, he wrote in the visitors' book: "The visit to Mohatta Palace built in the tradition of stone palaces of Rajasthan has reinforced my belief that the cultural links between our two nations are abiding which is central to our history. If we shared a common past, it's wise to share a common future regardless of geographical boundaries.''
True words of wisdom there. But how many politicians, in power or out of it, in the two countries share this courage of conviction and sincerity to bridge the impossible gulf between the neighbours? If all of us, Indians and Pakistanis, really believed in this reality of a shared past and shared future, why are we still stuck in a time warp? Over the past 65 years, the more things change between India and Pakistan, the more they have remained the same.
Of late things have indeed started to change though. A remarkable and little-noticed shift is taking place in the surreal world of India-Pakistan relations despite the best efforts of the guardian angels of foreign policy and security establishments on both sides to maintain the status quo.
The red carpet reception rolled out to the Bihar CM in Islamabad with President Asif Ali Zardari ignoring all protocol to host a special Diwali dinner in honour of the visitor was clearly meant to be a message to Delhi and PM Singh, who has allowed himself to be dictated by cynical South Block hawks on relations with the neighbour.
And the Bihar leader is not the only one to get a rousing reception. Kumar arrived in Pakistan even as Sukhbir Singh Badal, deputy leader of Indian Punjab, was crossing Wagah after a remarkable visit to the other Punjab. Badal, the virtual head of the Akali government, had arrived with some real big and bold ideas to take the relationship to a whole new level. The young leader presented an ambitious roadmap for economic partnership between the two Punjabs in his talks with Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who is to reciprocate the visit in the next few weeks.
Besides pushing for free trade zones and more trade routes and road links across the Radcliffe line, he has made an impassioned appeal asking the neighbours to clear the negative effects of Partition and hurdles that prevent free movement of people who had not long ago been one. In doing so, Badal, whose party too is part of the NDA, may be voicing the sentiments of the silent multitudes of the subcontinent that have been consistently ignored by their governments. As C Raja Mohan notes in the Indian Express, "If the BJP has abandoned the peace legacy of Vajpayee, the Congress hasn't had the courage of conviction to follow through its own initiatives. Conservatives in the cabinet, like Defence Minister Antony, have repeatedly blocked the PM's initiatives, including his plans to visit Pakistan. The Congress has ceded the initiative not to the BJP, but to regional leaders." Clearly, Badal and Kumar are filling the political and leadership vacuum left open by Premier Singh and Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi. As on Kashmir and other hot button issues, the Congress leadership notwithstanding its liberal image has betrayed a singular lack of courage and vision to take decisive steps even when offered historic opportunities. So what's Dr Singh afraid of? What would it take to take that bold step towards lasting peace and normalisation of ties with the neighbour? Even Vajpayee, for all his flaws and ideological baggage, had been much more enthusiastic about clearing the mess with Pakistan.