The real message from Asif Ali Zardari's fleeting pilgrimage to India on Easter Sunday is not that he and Manmohan Singh discussed everything from trade to terrorism, but that it took an embattled Pakistani President to shake an Indian Prime Minister out of his perceived apathy and remind him of his own vision of a subcontinent that is at peace with itself.
You must hand it to Zardari for deciding to storm the barricades of our minds. In the end, it was all so simple, really.
“Guftagu band na ho, baat se baat ban jaye.” That line in Urdu/Hindi, which essentially exhorts estranged friends to return to the table and pick up the thread of conversation, just over a decade ago lay at the heart of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's policy on Pakistan. Note that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), today, has said nary a word on Zardari's visit to India.
In fact, by forcing himself on the Indian leadership, the flamboyant Zardari not only effectively chain-stitched the dialogue that had been so brutally ended by the Mumbai attacks nearly four years ago, but also put his own establishment on notice.
By inviting the Prime Minister to make a return visit to Pakistan — an invitation that will make Dr. Singh look quite churlish if he refuses — Mr. Zardari effectively challenged his own establishment to make progress on the Mumbai terror accused, who roam around in Pakistan mostly as free men.
No prizes, then, for guessing what will constitute the makings of a return visit by Dr. Singh, perhaps to Panja Sahib and his beloved hometown Gah in Chakwal district, besides official talks in Islamabad, by the end of the year. If Mr. Zardari can deliver on the Mumbai terrorists, he would have earned himself a place in history.
In return, the Prime Minister could be emboldened to go where no Indian Prime Minister has been, certainly since 1989. At the time, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto had agreed to end the particularly muscular drama re-enacted by Indian soldiers on the heights in the Siachen glacier, while Pakistani troops performed mirror-image movements down below.
The Siachen story is so emblematic of all that is wrong in the India-Pakistan relationship because more soldiers die from frostbite every year than bullet wounds. Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto had agreed that Indian troops would leave Siachen and Pakistan soldiers would not reoccupy the heights — the primordial Indian Army nightmare — as have several governments in the years since. But for one reason or another, especially after Pakistan's Kargil misadventure in 1999, the Indian Army has succeeded in sabotaging the very thought from reaching its logical conclusion in the Indian political establishment.
Surely, a signature on the Siachen issue by an Indian Prime Minister in Pakistan could be the ultimate reiteration of India's political and civilian supremacy over its military establishment.
The point here is that it is not up to the Army to tell India's elected leaders where and how and under what circumstances it will fight. That decision must surely rest with the civilian leadership, in this case Dr. Singh.
It's easy to see that a step-by-step approach, closely coordinated and perfectly balanced, can be the key to breaking the deadlock that currently defines the bilateral relationship: Action on the Mumbai terror accused in return for agreements on Siachen and the maritime border at Sir Creek. A continuation of the conversation on Afghanistan that is said to have begun on Easter Sunday. A revival of the conversation on Kashmir in which both sides also agree to transform the currently pathetic and bureaucratically rigid travel and trade dispensation across the Line of Control.
Meanwhile, as just desserts, India would be happy to blow up its own tightly-controlled trading and investment regimes, long ago specially created for Pakistan only. It would be far too easy to take Pakistan — as well as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — along on the ride to higher economic growth.
The question is, do Dr. Singh and Asif Ali Zardari have the courage to stand up to the naysayers in their own countries? If Mr. Zardari's panache has hogged the headlines so far, it would be in keeping with Dr. Singh's quieter character to lend a hand that stabilises the game. Whether or not the two become South Asia's political pilgrims of choice in the coming months, the rest of us will certainly be watching their progress.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)