Zardari is welcome

Under his watch, Pakistan took a bold step forward on trade; PM must build on it

It is entirely appropriate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is hosting Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who sought a private visit to Ajmer Sharif, in Delhi later this week. The UPA government's decision to receive Zardari in the capital is more than an extension of courtesy to Pakistan's head of state. It signals Delhi's appreciation of Zardari's role in reviving Indo-Pak relations after they went into a deep chill following the outrageous terror attacks on Mumbai at the end of November 2008. Zardari has not only kept faith with his declared agenda of transforming relations with India in the difficult days after 26/11, but has delivered what no previous Pakistani leader dared to articulate the first big step towards comprehensive normalisation of bilateral trade relations.

Zardari's success in breaking the longstanding political taboo in Pakistan against a commercial opening to India demands that Delhi's political classes re-evaluate the persona and politics of Pakistan's president. When he took charge of the Pakistan Peoples Party after the assassination of his wife and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the end of 2007, few were ready to bet on Zardari's ability to navigate the harsh political waters of Pakistan. Disproving his many critics, Zardari not only won the elections in early 2008 but has managed to deflect the many threats to his party and the presidency. He is already the longest-serving civilian president of Pakistan. If he survives until the constitutionally mandated elections in 2013, he might well oversee the first peaceful transition from one elected government to another in Pakistan.

If Zardari is close to making political history in Pakistan, he had begun with a bold vision for the relationship with India. In 2008 he had talked about giving priority to economic cooperation with India, putting difficult political issues on the back burner, and liberalising the visa regime between the two countries. For his political heresy, Zardari was rapped on the knuckles by Pakistan's "deep state" and 26/11 seemed to make his ideas just hot air. Three-and-a-half years later, Pakistan is ready to end trade discrimination against India, eager to import petroleum products from across the Radcliffe Line, about to clinch a visa liberalisation agreement, and considering electricity imports from across the India border. Under Zardari's watch, India and Pakistan are considering a sweeping agenda for economic cooperation for the first time in decades. The prime minister has every reason to welcome Zardari warmly and consider the next steps in consolidating the unexpected movement in bilateral relations.

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