In 2008, months before Asif Ali Zardari had been elected President of Pakistan, he articulated a vision for relations with India that was breathtaking in its forwardness. It is another matter that even before the Pakistan People's Party had settled into its role as the elected government, the terror attacks in Mumbai ensured that just guarding the India-Pakistan status quo would be an achievement; everything else was put on hold. Four years later, in his own unique style, Mr. Zardari has given a push to bilateral relations. A visit covering two cities in half a day with talks squeezed in before lunch was never expected to solve all the problems between the two countries, but its symbolic value can hardly be underestimated. By coming to India as a pilgrim first and only then a President, Mr. Zardari has provided a new metric for high-level visits between the two countries, almost making such trips across the border seem normal and easy. By comparison, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's insistence that he will visit Pakistan only when there is a big breakthrough to celebrate shows a diffidence at variance with his grand vision of “breakfast in Lahore, lunch in Kabul”. The Mumbai shadow still hangs over bilateral relations, and as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out to Mr. Zardari, Pakistan must clean out its stables if the two nations can celebrate a durable peace. But the Pakistani President's decision to come to India over the threats and protests of Hafiz Saeed, the head of the Laskar-e-Taiba/Jamat ud dawa that carried out the Mumbai attacks is a good sign; it is the second time that the PPP government has taken courage to defy Saeed and his backers in uniform; earlier this year, Islamabad decided to go ahead with changes to improve trade relations with India, despite dire warnings from the Difa-e-Pakistan council, an umbrella organisation of JuD and like-minded extremist groups.
Sunday's Zardari-Manmohan meeting will hopefully give new purpose to the dialogue process between the two countries. The tragedy at Siachen on the eve of President Zardari's visit was a cruel reminder of how close the two countries came to resolving this issue in 2006, and a warning of the urgency with which the two sides need to break the ice over it. Mistrust, and the recent memory of Kargil, were behind the Indian Army's objections to a proposed joint withdrawal from those icy heights. That the avalanche that killed 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians last Saturday might well have happened on the Indian side is a sobering thought. The disaster should spur both sides towards a resolution, so that there is no more the need to spend so much money and risk so many lives to assert a claim over what is essentially wasteland.