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The South Asian Insider

Ahead of Bilawal's Goa trip for SCO meet, a look at Bhuttos tryst with India

(News Agency)-Amnesia is helpful when it comes to international relations. An air of incongruous expectation surrounds the prospective arrival of Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Goa on May 4-5.
Now, the SCO consists of India, currently chairman of the group in which capacity it is hosting the summit; China, a country with which relations are strained over Himalaya-sized unanswered questions of cartographic and other sorts of aggressions by the People's Liberation Army; Russia, which is in earnest combat with Ukraine, and a host of proxy interests with half a finger on the nuclear button; and Khazakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, countries many people may not be able to point out in a map even.
Tagged along as observers, a shorthand for knocking to join the strange grouping, are four countries - Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia; more over six countries - Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka - have a dialogue partner status. It is quite a collection.
India and Pakistan are newbies in the organisation and if you look at the complexities of the relationship dynamics, it can be legitimately considered a miracle that they are meeting at all. It is therefore slightly unlikely that the SCO, after Goa, will suddenly become a pillar of "the emerging more representative world order based on the supremacy of international law, primarily the UN Charter" as piously envisaged in one of the groupings noteworthy but baffling declarations.
That brings us to young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The arrival of a Pakistani Foreign Minister on Indian soil is looked upon with the same noteworthiness attached to rare passing comets. They don't visit often but when they do there is a sound and light show. Some of it in Pakistan and some of it in India. The significance is amplified if the personage happens to bear the name Bhutto.
After the crushing loss to India in the 1971 war, Bhutto's grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the forebearer of Pakistan's fledgling democracy, emerging from the shadows of fourteen years of military rule, came to India, more particularly to Shimla, where he signed the Shimla Accord, with Indira Gandhi. Bilawal's mother Benazir, then a teenager, accompanied her father on that fateful trip, where her father thrashed out an agreement which came to be regarded in Pakistan as a sell-out. In India, where lateral inversion is an axiomatic political phenomenon, there remains wonderment, now mostly political, though not residual, as to how an opportunity was squandered for a durable settlement barely six months after the creation of Bangladesh? To rephrase that cliché, how could India lose on the negotiating table what the army had gained in the battlefield?
These are not troubling questions but facile ones.
P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi's principal secretary, provides some inferential analysis to Mrs Gandhi's approach to the Shimla summit in Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency', and Indian Democracy (OUP). She was anxious that it should go off well.
"The day before he (Bhutto) arrived she inspected the rooms he was to occupy (at Himachal Bhavan) and spent a lot of time getting curtains, carpets and furniture rearranged. She took me along for a final inspection and threw a tantrum when she saw a large portrait of herself in what was going to be Bhutto's sitting room. She ordered it removed as it was the last thing that would make him relax. She was mollified when she saw that the toiletries in the bathroom were all made in India." (page 202).
That the summit has not lived fully up to Indian expectations is a bit of an understatement. It is not clear what history has recorded as young Ms Bhutto's impressions. It must have been difficult, in her mother's absence; her mother for some reason could not make it to Shimla.
She makes no mention of the summit in her ghost-written autobiography Destiny's Daughter that records Bilawal's birth on September 21, 1988, months before Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi was to visit Pakistan for a bilateral summit, when Benazir was briefly prime minister for the first time. It could have been amnesia at work.
Then, she had held out a promising olive branch by upholding the primacy of the Shimla Agreement. The occasion must have merited it: It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru who visited in September 1960 to sign the Indus Water Treaty, a lapse, Rajiv Gandhi ruefully pointed out in his banquet speech, of over ten thousand days.
Pakeezah's screening & Benazir's Mall road wandering
Back to Shimla, there are stray references on how Benazir watched a private screening of Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah at the Ritz, and wandered on Shimla's Mall Road, an object of desi paparazzi curiosity. Perhaps we should elevate the haunting refrain of the Pakeezah earworm (chalte chalte, mujhe koi mil gaya tha) to a symbolic status: Shab-e-intzaar aakhir kabhi hogi mukhtsar bhi/ Kabhi hogi mukhtsar bhiâ€æ
Dhar also writes that after Benazir's father Zulfikar failed to deliver on his Shimla promises, and when things started going south for him - his specially chosen General Zia was planning to turn on him - he made an attempt to get Mrs Gandhi to meet him, through the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Srimavo Bandarnaike. Curiously enough, months after Pokhran 1, in May 1974 year, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister passed a hand written note through the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Delhi to Mrs Gandhi. On May 24 1976, Sheikh Abdullah wrote (p 217) a "carefully worded" letter to Mrs Gandhi, underlining the Line of Control as a basis for a final settlement with Pakistan. Both attempts came to nought.
Bilawal was barely a toddler when Rajiv Gandhi signed in Islamabad in July 1989, an agreement that upheld non-attack of each other's nuclear facilities. Now the phrase 'nuclear facilities', when parsed sufficiently, indicates nuclear power plants, fuel processing facilities, uranium enrichment sites, the associated location data, which was considered a giant leap for the subcontinent; there was also a couple of other agreements, one on cultural co-operation and double taxation both of which are surely significant, but in the larger present context, neither here nor there, like famously said of that New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis.
Meanwhile in April 1979, Zulfikar Bhutto, Bilawal's grandfather was rudely removed from the scene through death by hanging by Gen Zia ul-Haq. Mrs Indira Gandhi too, was to die by assassination. It has not escaped the notice of the idle observer that neither a Cambridge education (Rajiv Gandhi) nor an Oxford background (Benazir Bhutto), which was part of the optics of reporting the two glamorous South Asian leaders, helped move the bilateral situation forward.
It is significant ammunition in the politics of the unlettered, fashionable these days. Less than two years later Rajiv himself sprawled dead, felled by assassins; Benazir came for the funeral. She herself was to die by way of assassination, in the same city her father was hanged, in December 2007.
Bilawal's Goa sojourn & can realpolitik triumph posturing?
Bilawal's arrival in Goa, five days ahead of the Karnataka elections, gives no succour to hopes of a bilateral break through. The SCO meet is not about bilateral relations but rather about the sum of all bilateral relations. Come election time, Pakistan has been best known as a punching bag, one that takes the punches but returns none openly.
Bilawal comes after the Pakistan Prime Minister described Prime Minister Narendra Modi in terms that New Delhi no doubt views as reprehensible, if we are to draw inferences from the BBC. This itself is a story. Bilawal comes at a time when the stated Pakistani position is that there can be no serious bilateral engagement with India as long as the abrogation of Article 370, in 2019, is not revoked.
This is a story as well. If Bilawal still washes up in Goa, it is a sign that realpolitik has triumphed over posturing once again. It has been known to happen now and then. Many years ago, in January 2003, Jalil Abbas Jilani, posted in New Delhi as the Deputy High Commissioner, was declared a Persona Non Grata, for indulging in activities inconsistent with his status as a diplomat, and given 48 hours to leave the country.
When Jalil became foreign secretary, he came to New Delhi, in 2012 for official talks. He got a red-carpet welcome. Gone was New Delhi's posturing. New Delhi had to lump it. Selective amnesia is a helpful trick in India-Pakistan bilateral relations.