Bold visit brings fresh ray of hope
Incidentally, Chanakya or Kautilya came from the ancient university of Takshashila or Taxila in modern-day Pakistan. It was on the basis of his Machiavellian astuteness that he went on to become the prime minister of Chandragupta Maurya, India’s first emperor and Ashoka’s grandfather. And, yes, Chanakya also cautions against excessive honesty in one’s dealings with the world. For, he warns, straight trees are cut first in the forest while crooked ones are left standing. Whatever may be the motivation for Modi’s short sojourn to Lahore, you have to admit, it was extraordinarily courageous and politically expeditious.
Perhaps only a Narendra Modi with his party’s brute majority in Parliament and his impeccable credentials as the Hindu Hridaysamarat (conqueror of Hindu hearts) could have pulled it off without worrying too much about his political stock. Something that the old-fashioned and excessively cautious Dr. Manmohan Singh could never have imagined or dared to.
The poor Dr. Singh! In his 10 years in the most powerful office in the land, he is said to have endlessly dreamed about visiting the land of his birth and ancestors one fine day but could never finally muster the courage to make the shortest possible journey. While the good Dr. Singh, repeatedly taunted by Modi for treating President Pervez Musharraf to chicken biryani (or was it beef?), lacked the comforting security of a political base, his boss Sonia Gandhi, the Italian born president of the Congress party, lacked political courage. Accused of being “soft on the terrorists” by the BJP, the Congress forever remained on the defensive and shied away from taking any bold measures on normalizing ties with Pakistan.
This is why you cannot emphasize enough the historic nature of Modi’s diplomatic coup although Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif deserves equal credit for inviting the neighbor to stop over for a ‘chai pe charcha’ (chat over chai) while he was in the neighborhood. (Alright, it was actually a lavish spread of traditional Punjabi hospitality — and apparently shudh shakhahari — all vegetarian to celebrate Sharif’s 66th birthday and the wedding of his granddaughter Mehrunnisa, named after Jahangir’s erudite queen known as Noor Jehan who ruled the vast Mughal Empire from Lahore and lays buried in the city she loved.)
As a mystified Shahzad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s former air-vice marshal, grudgingly notes in the News International, “he (Modi) can walk into your house at the time of his choosing and say what he pleases — at times nice things. And he is unfettered and unshackled from convention. You don’t know what he might do next. Those incremental, deliberate, structured, and coached types simply keep guessing.”
It was what the Jews call chutzpah or Barack Obama would famously describe as the audacity of hope. Grant the man his due. He has got style. Like an accomplished performer, he has got impeccable timing and an acute sense of history. And to top it all, he loves the stage, the drama and the spotlight it generates. Anything for a billion plus eyeballs!
Jawed Naqvi, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi, offers an interesting explanation. Drawing parallels between Modi’s Pakistan visit and that of his more affable predecessor from the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in 1999, six months after the neighbors went nuclear, Naqvi points out that Vajpayee came up with the idea of the rush to Lahore in the wake of international furor over the burning alive of Australian Christian missionary Graham Steins and his young children by Hindutva zealots in Orissa. The now infamous lynching of a Muslim farmer, Mohammed Akhlaq, in Dadri near Delhi over beef eating rumors in September earned for Modi equally bad international press. This even as his government has remained utterly clueless and helpless in the face of sustained protests by India’s finest writers and artists over the past few months against the rising intolerance in the country. So Lahore offered relief to both Vajpayee and Modi, neutralizing in one stroke all the bad press and earning them laurels and applause all around.
Be that as it may, what now?
Whether Modi’s groundbreaking visit to Pakistan acquires the historic nature of a Richard Nixon-like outreach to China in 1972 that not just revolutionized the relations between Washington and Beijing but paved the way for China’s modernization and subsequent emergence as a global power largely depends on the Indian leader himself. Modi has got both the political heft and pluck and enjoys the support of the hard-line Hindutva Parivar and the hawkish military establishment.
On the other hand, the fact that Sharif has been going out of his way to woo and engage the Indian leadership by first attending Modi’s crowning in Delhi and then inviting him over for his birthday bash suggests that Pakistan’s powerful military is also on board. Without the nod from the other Sharif, it’s unlikely that the Pakistani leadership would be so welcoming.
It would be a terrible shame and epic tragedy therefore if after the breakthrough of Lahore it is business as usual between the nuclear armed neighbors who have for the better part of their existence lived on the knife’s edge.
God knows the people of India and Pakistan deserve a better deal than their opportunistic leaders have offered them so far. While the South Asian twins take endless pride in being nuclear powers and spend a ludicrous proportion of their annual budgets on arming themselves to the teeth with fearsome weapons, the vast multitudes of their populations happen to be some of the poorest on the planet and still struggle for basics such as electricity, water, schools, hospitals and toilets.
Look at the fantastic story of China. It could never have achieved the dizzying heights of its economic growth, emerging as the fastest growing economy in the world today if it had remained stuck in a time warp, raising its vast, enterprising young population on a diet of hatred and mindless xenophobia. The US-China entente and subsequent disintegration of Soviet Union to some extent allowed China to focus on the nation building.
Imagine what an awesome difference India and Pakistan could make if they diverted the billions of dollars that they spend every year on acquiring fancy weapons and maintaining massive armies toward bettering the lives of their own people. Isn’t it a shame that today Indians and Pakistanis can travel the world at the drop of a hat but cannot visit each other without a great deal of grief despite the fact that not long ago they belonged to one country?
Doubtless, the hawks and special interests, not to mention the self-anointed guardians of national interest in the media, on both sides are immensely powerful and have held the India-Pakistan relations a hostage of their hatred and absurd insecurities all these years. But if there is political will and the willingness to travel the road less traveled, nothing is impossible.
— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view