Not for nothing is the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) known as the Harvard of Pakistan. It attracts the best students in the country. It is also stiff on the pocket, so it is an island of privilege, though the University financially supports deserving, but not well-off, students. LUMS has also mopped up some of the best brains in Pakistan for its faculty. Despite some Jamat-e-Islami inclined students, it remains a liberal bastion in the heart of Punjab.

What better place than its red brick and ivy campus then to hold a “Track 2” discussion on India-Pakistan relations. We were a group of Indians and Pakistanis — academics, politicians, retired diplomats, spooks and generals, and a couple of hacks like me, brought together by Balusa, an initiative named apparently after an ancient Indic word for peace, and the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation. Balusa is the brainchild of Syed Babar Ali, the Pakistani industrialist who also set up LUMS.

SBA, as he is known, was a gracious and generous host. Helped by Lt. General Mahmud Durrani, Pakistan's former National Security Adviser, he also made sure there was no slacking at the sessions. Given the political tumult and uncertainty on both sides of the border, it hardly seems the time to contemplate progress on India-Pakistan relations. We can only hope that all the hard work will be read and taken seriously by those in charge on either side. SBA wondered aloud if there was any industrialist like him in India who might be interested in hosting/organising a similar initiative for peace on the Indian side. Any takers?

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If I had to name one thing in Pakistan that works round the clock, is always dependable, under military rule or civilian government, irrespective of the latest crisis in the country, that would be the private Daewoo bus service from Lahore to Islamabad. A bus every half hour in both directions, and in four-and-a-half hours, you are sure to be at your destination. It helps in no small measure that it operates on the six-lane Lahore-Islamabad motorway, perhaps the best road in South Asia, and the lasting legacy of Nawaz Sharif's short-lived term in office.

At 367 km, it is longer than the Grand Trunk Road between the two cities, and there is a usage toll. Everyone has to behave as if they are in a foreign country while driving on it — the speed limit is 120 km/hour, and the innermost lane is strictly for overtaking. The motorway police, armed with their cameras and their reputation for fierce incorruptibility, lurk everywhere. If only the rest of Pakistan was like this.

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In Islamabad (even if you have, like me, returned as a short-term visitor after a gap of two years) it takes no time to get sucked into a swirl of rumours about the political scene. This time the rumour is that there won't be a coup. The centre of gravity, at least for the moment, has shifted from Rawalpindi to the Supreme Court. Among the anti-Pakistan People's Party wallahs, there is indignation that the Army took the nation on a “memoride” for four months, building expectations that the government, or at least one wildly unpopular individual in it, would be sacked for plotting against the military. Any commentator worth his salt is now predicting elections, anytime from September 2012 to May 2013. That would be one for the record books. It would finally enable Pakistan to say that after all these years, an elected government completed its term; plus, that it was replaced not by the khakis, but by another elected government.

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In such an atmosphere, India-Pakistan relations are bound to be a bit of a side-show — except when Hafiz Saeed, the infamous chief of the even more infamous Jamat-ud-dawa, the front of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, now banded together with 40 other like-minded groups and individuals as the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council, decides to bring it centre stage. This gig is travelling from city to city, stirring up passion against Pakistan's decision to accord India MFN status among other things; it is headed to Karachi on February 12. The rallies are still restricted to a madrasa type audience, but the message that there can be no normalising of trade with India has found wide acceptance.

Apparently, the main weapon in Hafiz Saeed's armoury is nothing more than the Urdu translation of Most Favoured Nation. In a nation that has over six decades internalised the term dushman hamsaya (enemy neighbour), the Pakistan government and business lobbies, who are all for cross-border trade, find themselves on the backfoot while discussing giving this same neighbour the status of “sabsey pasandeeda mulk.” Ignorance about MFN is widespread, shockingly even among friends of India. No one knows exactly what it is, except what they understand from the translation. At the “Track 2” meeting, one of the Pakistani delegates made an impassioned plea for replacing MFN with some other term that would mean the same thing but wouldn't sound as if Pakistan and India had become BFF, best friends forever.

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Islamabad has an escape for those who want to cut themselves off from the political gossip and endless conspiracy theories — the Marghalla hills.

Every morning and evening, men, women and children take to the walking trails on nature's own gym, usually for the one hour climb on what is called Trail 3. With my colleague Anita Joshua, I hit Trail 5 and then made the steeper climb towards Trail 3 on a sunny winter Sunday. On some days, it is possible to spot a wild hare or a family of wild boar on the trails. I saw a fox once. This time, we came across only the two-legged species.

There was a group of Chinese men too — the Chinese are possibly one of the biggest expatriate groups in Pakistan now, numbering around 16,000 according to one estimate; the Chinese residents of the capital possibly feel more secure than during the Lal Masjid days of 2007, as there have been no major terror incidents in Islamabad for a couple of years.

But the threat remains. It was with shock that I heard that a day after our Marghalla expedition, security personnel had launched search operations on the same hills to comb out militants planning attacks on Islamabad.

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Amid the growing conservatism in Pakistan, that much maligned group called “Pakistani liberals” managed to register one small victory recently when Samaa TV pulled a morning show in which the anchor was jumping unsuspecting couples in parks with offensive questions such as “what is your relationship with this person?” “Are you married?”, “Where is your nikahnama?”, “Shouldn't you be in college at this time?” and so on.

There was a huge backlash; viewers wanted the show taken off and demanded that the “vigil-aunty,” anchor Maya Khan, apologise to viewers. She was unrepentant; but mindful of the television regulator, who had also taken a stern view, the channel had no choice but to stop the show.

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