Despite the Army's domination, the Pakistan President has shown deft political skills.
Just before he commenced his Yatra to India to combine diplomacy in Delhi with pilgrimage and prayer in Ajmer, President Asif Zardari had a long meeting in Lahore with the person who determines his country's foreign and security policies — General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
The worthy General, who never tires of telling his American friends about his “India-centric” view of the world, is no slouch when it comes to political intrigue and manoeuvring, to keep the elected Government on its toes. He has repeatedly sought to clip the wings of a President the army establishment loves to hate. Kayani is quite appropriately called by sections of the Pakistani media as “canny”.
The cigar-smoking General, who has long been a darling of the American establishment, displayed his true colours, after the US raid on Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden, as he was unable to explain how the Pakistan army, the self-proclaimed guardian of Pakistan's “ideological and geographical frontiers,” could have allowed the most wanted terrorist in the world to be found in one of the country's most strongly guarded Cantonments.
DEALING WITH AMERICANS
Kayani responded by manipulating the media and raising anti-American sentiments across the country.
The anti-American propaganda became frenzied, after American air attacks killed 25 Pakistani soldiers who opened fire on an Afghan-American joint patrol across the Durand Line. But, determined to keep his personal links open with the Americans, Kayani passed the buck for determining the future course of relations with the US to the politicians in Pakistan's Parliament.
The Parliament has tied the country in knots by placing demands on the Americans for reopening supply routes to Afghanistan, which no American President can really accept, especially in an election year. These demands include a public apology for the killing of 25 Pakistani soldiers, an end to drone strikes and a nuclear deal, akin to that reached with India.
With tensions rising on his country's borders with Afghanistan, Kayani's strategy is not to allow escalation of tensions on Pakistan's borders with India, when his resources are deployed elsewhere.
He has, therefore, given President Zardari's Government, space to make some token moves, purporting to represent a “change of heart.”
Kayani knows there is no dearth of Indian “bleeding hearts”, given to holding “Candle Light Vigils”“ on the Wagah border, who will see all this as a “genuine change of heart,” in the Pakistani establishment.
Zardari has, therefore, evidently been given the go ahead to move slowly in removing restrictions on trade and for some movement on people to people relations.
But, his Government has been put on notice not to get out of line, by the Defence of Pakistan Council, a group of Pakistani Islamist radicals, led by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and backed by the military.
Predictably, the Council has alleged that India is starving Pakistan of river waters and asserted that Jihad in Kashmir is the only way forward. Zardari was thus forced to make ritual references to Kashmir when in Delhi.
Despite being under siege domestically, President Zardari has shown considerable skills in political management.
The ruling Peoples' Party and its allies have recently swept elections to the Pakistan Senate.
He also appears to be working on a strategy to split opposition votes between Nawaz Sharif and the army backed Imran Khan, whose Party's Vice-President has been prominently present at meetings addressed by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.
Zardari has also backed the demand for splitting the dominant Punjab Province, by supporting the establishment of a Seraiki speaking Province in Southern Punjab.
This issue resonates strongly in Southern Punjab, where people feel discriminated against by the dominant Punjabi speakers. Southern Punjab is the home of Prime Minister Gilani, who resents the domination of the Punjabi speaking Sharif brothers.
WELCOMED IN INDIA
Zardari came to India at a time when the political battle for his re-election as President and for the forthcoming general elections next year has commenced.
He has fought a hard battle to deal with manoeuvres of the Army and Supreme Court to oust him and has shaped the contours of his strategy for forthcoming electoral battles.
There is, however, little doubt that the ruling coalition cannot retain the decisive majority it now has in the National Assembly.
The next elections could well produce a fractured verdict. Given his genuinely friendly and non-confrontational approach to India, it was only appropriate that President Zardari was warmly welcomed in India.
His visit has won high praise for him from both the US and China.
But, this does not mean that we should proceed on the path of diplomatic adventurism, undertaking a poorly planned Prime Ministerial visit to Pakistan.
It is obvious that the Zardari Government does not have the power to deliver justice to the victims of the 26/11 Mumbai carnage, or rein in its military's support for terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)