A week is a long time in politics, then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said. A day, though, can seem even longer on the subcontinent. When Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari announced his private visit to a Sufi shrine in India, New Delhi welcomed it wholeheartedly. Indeed, India made it a state-level visit by inviting the president to New Delhi to hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The decision was hailed as a major move towards improving relations between India and Pakistan, and in newspaper editorials and TV debates the visit was widely seen as a chance to transform relations between the traditional rivals. But the positive mood was quickly overshadowed by Washington’s announcement of a $10 million bounty on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Saeed, who is accused of being one of the masterminds behind the 2008 attack on Mumbai.
India has long demanded that Pakistan rein in the fundamentalist leader. Following the Mumbai attacks, India suspended all talks with its neighbor, and for nearly two years the bilateral relationship remained in limbo, with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of sheltering the perpetrators of the attack, something that Pakistan denied.
However, both countries realized the futility of their political paranoia and resumed the normalization process. It was the result of this peace initiative that Pakistan granted Most Favored Nation status to India, a landmark moment in their relationship. Meanwhile, both countries have been intensifying trade ties in order to promote positive contact and sideline elements antagonistic to normal relations between the nations.
In his recent meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raja Gilani in Seoul, Singh expressed his desire to visit Pakistan. The idea is to meet with the civilian government in Islamabad for meaningful talks that will help the people of both countries come together. Zardari’s private visit to the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer on April 8 therefore provided India with a wonderful opportunity to engage the Pakistani leadership in talks and build on this progress.
But the United States’ bounty on Saeed took the focus away from these discussions. And it begs the question why the Saeed announcement needed to be made when it was, especially when Saeed doesn’t actually appear to be in hiding – he has been highly visible in Pakistan and addresses rallies in different parts of the country with some frequency. In other words, he’s not Mullah Omar or some al-Qaeda leader hiding in Pakistan’s border caves who needs to be flushed out.
At the end of the day, Saeed is a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Islamabad, and it’s they who should handle it. The best way to marginalize the forces and ideas that organizations like LeT represent is to strengthen the progressive constituencies of both countries. By announcing a bounty on Saeed, the United States is giving him a new lease of life and just another excuse to mobilize anti-American and anti-Indian sentiments in Pakistan.
New Delhi and Islamabad must consider the long-term interests of both countries, rather than fall prey to irritants and become prisoners to political paranoia.