Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

Legend has it in the South Asian sub-continent and beyond that the pilgrim gets to visit Ajmer and offer prayer at the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti (c. 1142 – 1230 AD) only when there is a ‘bulaava’. This quintessential Hindustani word may be inadequately translated as a beckoning from an intangible but irresistible force – the higher agency - that is differently described as faith or religion among the millions who inhabit the extended South Asian region.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is visiting Ajmer on Sunday (April 8) to honor a ‘mannat’ (vow) that he would offer prayer at the shrine of the ‘gharib nawaz’ – the honorific used for the Sufi saint and in the process, a brief detour has been scheduled in Delhi where a Zardari-Manmohan Singh luncheon is on the agenda.

The meeting between the two leaders has been differently interpreted in both countries and a pattern is discernible, wherein the conservative elements are skeptical of the need and the outcome of such an informal high level meeting. The reasons advanced include the fact that the bi-lateral relationship is weighed down under the lack of progress on the Mumbai 2008 attack and the focus is on groups such as the LeT and its leader Hafiz Saeed (now in the news with a US award against his name ) and that the Pakistani president wields little power or influence in relation to Pakistani policies apropos Kashmir, support to terrorist groups and the nuclear weapon capability – three issues that directly impact India’s security and strategic interests.

However Zardari is not just a ceremonial head of state but a major player in the politics of Pakistan – post the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto - and a man who has survived the violence and venality of Pakistan’s military dominated power structure. After the rejection of the Musharraf rule by the people of Pakistan, despite many internal fissures and vulnerabilities, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by the Zardari-Gilani combine has been able to provide Pakistan a civilian led government – which may be the first to complete its tenure without a military coup or some other disruption.

Since assuming office in March 2008, Pakistani PM Gilani with the support of his party led by Asif Zardari has demonstrated a surprising tenacity and survived many challenges, including a stricture by the Pakistani Supreme Court. In this period the Zardari-Gilani combine have managed the post-Osama bin Laden-Abbotabad national shame and humiliation and kept the powerful Pakistan military within some kind of constitutional boundaries. Concurrently, this civilian government has managed to improve the bilateral relationship with India even while Pak-US ties have touched an all-time low over the Pakistan military's duplicity in the war on terror, US drone attacks and more.

In short, the Zardari leadership will be noted for having progressively restored the credibility of the legislature in Islamabad even though real power still lies in the Pakistan Army GHQ in Rawalpindi. Notwithstanding the many allegations and personal attacks on his past conduct, Zardari has always supported improved relations with India and made some radical suggestions on the nuclear front when he assumed office that startled the Pakistani ‘fauj’ (army) – and he was forced to withdraw from this position.

In recent months, after considerable hand-wringing among the anti-India brigade, the Gilani government was able to convey its formal approval for Pakistan to accord India the MFN status for trade and related commercial activity. While this is yet to be fully implemented, it is evident that the bilateral relationship is indeed making progress on some tracks - even if it is very slow and halting.

Against this backdrop the Zardari personal visit to the Ajmer dargah overlaps into the political domain and PM Manmohan Singh is to be commended for taking this initiative to host a one-on-one luncheon meeting (with no aides and note-takers) despite the criticism that he has had to deal with since the Mumbai attack of November 2008. Yes, even before embarking on the India visit, President Zardari has reiterated the Pakistan position on Kashmir and it is likely that PM Singh will insist on speedy action in regard to the Mumbai attacks.

But the sub-text of moving ahead in areas where both nations are able to, is the most desirable option in the larger interests of the region and its people. At a fundamental level, Pakistan needs to change its attitude towards India and its interpretation of Islam, if it is to pacify the many virulent internal socio-religious forces it has unleashed since the General Zia ul Haq era. At a symbolic level, the Ajmer shrine and what ‘gharib nawaz’ epitomizes may well be the direction that the soul of Pakistan most needs in its current situation. The prevailing Wahabi-Salafi dominated discourse in Pakistan about the inflexible, gender-biased tenets of Islam that must be followed are a sharp contrast to the more empathetic and tolerant tradition that the Chishti order nurtures and it is to President Zardari’s credit that he is making a public visit to a Sufi shrine in India.

For a lay person of the South Asian region, ‘gharib nawaz’ transcends religion and is equally revered across the spectrum. The well known song “Khwaja mera Khwaja” from the Bollywood film ‘Joda Akbar’ captures what has eluded the sub-continent due to corrosive narratives, divisive politics and ruthless power struggles.

There will be no breakthroughs at the Sunday luncheon meeting but in extending such courtesies to the visiting head of state of an important neighbor, PM Singh will embellish his own profile as a thoughtful leader – who though beleaguered in his own domestic constituency – has a steadfast vision for the region in the near future and is willing to deal with the brickbats and bouncers that India and Pakistan are well-known for.

(C Uday Bhaskar is a leading strategic analyst. He is the Senior Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor on April 7, 2012.)
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