Handshakes and hope

President Asif Ali Zardari

A political handshake is historically billed as a tangible diplomatic initiative. Although Neville Chamberlain may not have agreed with this sentiment after Hitler gave him the cold shoulder instead of a warm hand and crushed the shrill claims of ‘peace in our times,’ the traditional physical equivalent of the word of honour has had its moments.

On February 21, 1972, US president Richard Nixon and the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, put their palms together for a ‘historic handshake.’ That gesture changed the world and defrosted the Cold War era. But when it comes to India and Pakistan, the handshakes are merely a formality, closer to window dressing for the paparazzi rather than for indicating any substance.One more round of such informal diplomacy was witnessed on Sunday, when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari made a pilgrimage to the Ajmer Sharif shrine. Before that, he shook hands with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, had a 40 minute one-on-one discussion followed by a rather elaborate lunch.

Besides the regular dialogue between the two nations, in recent memory, on three occasions India and Pakistan have distanced themselves from the regular round of talks to set a headline grabbing precedent. First it was in 1987, when General Zia-ul Haq came to India to watch a cricket match. He coined the word ‘cricketlomacy’ and it survived several years as a user-friendly label for summits big and small. ast year, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited India to watch a World Cup cricket match making that two innings back to back but with no real score. Now we have Zardari’s pilgrimage via the Indian capital.It has to be said right upfront that both countries are convinced that they need to talk more. That conviction is what must carry more conviction, if one can play on words.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani strategic analyst and scholar, has been quoted as saying that the trust level between both nations hovers at about 3 on a scale of 10. This is not very comforting after 60 years because if that is the ‘run rate,’ we are a century-and-a-half away from normalisation.So when you have such a chasm of distrust, how do you lie down and become a bridge over troubled waters?The one way is the need to talk. As often as possible, on every occasion that comes about.This brings the leadership of both countries to ask themselves and each other what exactly is the premise for the talk and how solid the foundation. All too often there is the feel of quicksand about the meetings and they suck out hope of a more peaceful future.

At this juncture Indian leaders have been asking their Pakistani counterparts to bring to heel elements so inimical to India that their protection is galling enough to sabotage any take off for fruitful talks. Indians seeing the prime accused of the Mumbai blasts, Hafiz Saeed, openly holding rallies in different cities of Pakistan are loath to see much chance of success in conversations of a mutually beneficial nature.But when New Delhi raises the issue of terrorism, the common response from Islamabad is that it is as much a victim of the menace, if not more. If you count the attacks and the blasts and the bombs and the death toll, Pakistan is grimly ahead.

Indians firmly believe that the monster Pakistan created over the years has now been feeding upon the host with a ferocity that the best of security cannot handle. It is an inexorable and exhausting beast and no one knows how many heads this hydra has. In an ideal world the two nations would fight it together. That is not yet an option.In the last 65 years of partition, India and Pakistan have come to the table on several occasions, worked out agendas, exchanged ideas but except for the Indus Water Treaty (also being questioned now in Pakistan) nothing concrete has really ever come out on any issue. Ergo, the track record is poor.

Zardari once again raised the issues of Sir Creek, Siachen and Kashmir. Manmohan Singh picked them up and acknowledged their presence when he referred to moving forward step by step in resolving contentious issues.Sadly, when it comes to the Indo-Pak climbs to summits it generally becomes one step forward and two steps back. Siddiqa has said that India and Pakistan love to “miss opportunities”. That is perhaps the most perceptive capsuled commentary on this visit.A Spanish proverb says that paths are made by walking. For the two neighbours, perhaps the path out of the entangled forest is through talking. Do they have the will and the words…not to mention the wisdom? – Khaleejnews