Screengrab from www.ndtv.com
At least five minders in white trousers and shirts and red Rajasthani safas (turbans) held up black umbrellas as Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari landed at the Ghugara helipad in Ajmer this afternoon.
That instantly prompted this question in my mind: Just how many umbrellas are needed to protect Zardari from the intense Rajasthani sun? I am sure the walk from his helicopter to the waiting official vehicles could not be more than 100 steps. Even Zardari, particularly Zardari, could withstand that much exposure to the sun. After all, he has withstood both a rough prison term as well as Pakistan’s presidency.
With that bile out of my system, now to the more substantive issues at hand. Zardari had a 40-minute private meeting with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday. Dr. Singh described the talks as very constructive. The visiting president was hosted to an exclusive lunch in the presence of a select few guests. We have been told that Zardari is a vegetarian which I suppose is a good thing. I do not know anything about the menu but one can safely conclude that it contained food.
The signature bit of news of the meeting was that Dr. Singh has accepted Zardari’s invitation to visit Pakistan at a “mutually convenient date.” No one should be surprised if it comes sooner rather than later. Not much was expected from Zardari’s seemingly private visit to Ajmer Sharif where Sufi tradition’s most widely followed saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti known as Gharib Nawaz (the benefactor of the poor) rests. Ajmer Sharif is easily among the five most visited shrines by people of all faiths. If there is one person who needs Gharib Nawaz’s benediction it is Zardari. So it is just as well that he went there.
India-Pakistan relations are at a stage where they have generally been for the past few decades—stagnant with eternal promise. That stagnant pool is occasionally stirred up into gentle ripples by such visits. The bilateral fabric is torn and worn out in so many places that such diplomatic darning helps only temporarily until it unravels somewhere else. What the countries need is not more efficient darning (the Hindi/Urdu word for that is Rafu or Raffu) but a whole new fabric.
Just how absurd the historic rivalry gets was tragically highlighted by the feared deaths of 135 people after an army camp on the Siachen Glacier was buried under an avalanche. The Siachen Glacier is an inhospitable mountainous region in Kashmir that divides the two countries. For decades it has been projected as a territory of great strategic value by both sides and it has been a cause for many deaths. There are experts who would tell you that the strategic value of Siachen is next to nothing but it has become one of those received wisdoms that has acquired sanctity because it has not been challenged enough.
The avalanche occurred on Saturday even as Zardari was preparing to visit India. Of course, there was some inevitable domestic criticism over why he went ahead with the India visit rather than attending to the Siachen deaths which I am sure were seen as in service of guarding Pakistan against India.
On a tangent, it is ironic that in a region where neighbors tend to be charmingly meddlesome and familiar about each other’s lives, the visits by the leaders of India and Pakistan have to go through so many choreographed contortions. I have frequently asked why the leaders cannot just drop by more frequently without the burden of each visit becoming “defining” or “breakthrough” or “ice-breaking” or “historic.”
When Dr. Singh visits, it will be for the first by an Indian prime minister in eight years. It is simply not realistic to expect any headway in any bilateral relations, the lest of all those as convoluted and emotional as between India and Pakistan, with such sparing personal contact between the leaders.
If the Indian prime minister does visit Pakistan during the summer, Zardari can return hospitality by sending a dozen minders carrying a dozen umbrellas for him at the Islamabad airport.