Rehman Malik in India: Expect the unexpected
As Pakistani politicians go, Rehman Malik certainly stands out. A policeman who has made it up the ranks of a feudal political system, he was the chief of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (the equivalent of India's CBI) during Benazir Bhutto's second Prime Ministerial tenure (1993-1996). He endeared himself to Bhutto further when he produced a 200-page report detailing corruption allegations against Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, which led to his sacking by Sharif in 1998, who was then Prime Minister. Malik was then made security adviser to Benazir Bhutto, and despite many questions over why he sped off to Islamabad just after her assassination in Rawalpindi (he said he thought the convoy was following him to safety), Malik has remained close to President Zardari. He is the only minister to have retained his portfolio since the PPP government won in 2007, and despite his gaffe-a-minute, garrulous appearance, he is one of Pakistan's most influential ministers. If you ask him, Malik will brush it off, "Hum policewaalon ko kaam nikaalne se matlab hota hai. (We policemen are only interested in getting our work done)".
On a personal level, Malik is one of the most hospitable Pakistanis, especially so with Indian journalists. I remember finishing an interview with him once some years ago, and found we were late for our flight to Lahore that would connect us to our Delhi flight. Malik didn't just send my colleague Smita Sharma, cameraman Nishat Hayat and me to the airport in his own 4-wheel drive, he even had a message passed on to keep the plane waiting until we reached! In 2011, after the Abbotabad Osama killing, Malik over-ruled his foreign ministry's objections to allowing Indian journalists in, famously 'granting' a visa to a well-known journalist over the social networking site twitter. And despite much unhappiness amongst Pakistani journalists about the fact Indian ministers seldom give them time, Malik has always been generous about granting interviews to visiting Indian journalists. He also frequently startles people on both sides of the border with his statements and tweets, once wishing Chidambaram and the Indian government 'good luck' for state elections in Tamil Nadu, also counseling patience as he mistakenly announced elections in Pakistan would be held on schedule in '1913'. Not to mention Malik's comment after the attack on the Mehran naval base in 2011, where he said the attackers looked like aliens from "Star Wars" films.
Indian officials were most baffled, though, when Malik hosted then Home Minister P Chidambaram in Islamabad in 2010. Chidambaram has a surprising constituency with our neighbours, who are impressed with his tough-talking, and even his stern crustiness had to give way to a smile at the reception he received when he landed. Malik broke all protocol for Chidambaram, flying him in a helicopter for a full gun-salute at the police academy, and then laying on the hospitality with a 7-course banquet. The atmosphere prompted the Home Minister to overlook what could have become a massive gaffe- that of the Indian Tricolour being displayed upside down in Malik's office. In front of many red-faced Pakistani officials, Chidambaram personally unscrewed the flag and righted it before continuing with the meeting, but chose not to make an issue of it with the press.
It was Malik's word then that he will be held to account for during his return visit to Delhi this weekend- at a press conference in 2010, Malik had made 3 commitments on the 26/11 trial of LeT commanders. The first, that the trial in Pakistan would be fast-tracked. Despite that promise 2 years ago, the government of Pakistan, (and perhaps only in anticipation of Malik's visit, only began to move this November, with the government petitioning the Adiala jail judge to conduct a day-to-day trial. The second commitment, that he would re-assess the case against LeT founder Hafiz Saeed, a promise Pakistan has since shied away from. And the third, that Pakistan was ready to hand over voice samples of the 26/11 accused Lashkar men. This would be a crucial piece of evidence, given that if those voices match those heard on police recordings directing the killings during the Mumbai attacks, they would pave the way for quicker convictions, as well as bolster India's confidence in Pakistan's avowals of support. In the case of Abu Jindal, as well as David Headley, India has made remarkable headway with Saudi and US officials, and Malik could produce many important links to that diabolical plot, if his government so chooses.
On another count, Malik's visit to India is an important moment for people on both sides of the country. There will be cheers from both businessmen as well as divided families about Shinde and Malik's announcement of the liberalised visa regime. There is no question that more visas will help cut down many of the barriers that exist in trading with India's neighbours. Naukri.com founder Sanjeev Bhikchandani, who returned from a visit to Pakistan this year is convinced of the large potential. "We need to build inter-dependencies so that there are lobbies created who favour peace", he says, "Right now, when the societies are totally cut off, it doesn't cost anything to be hostile." Such words would in the past be ascribed to "candle-holding peaceniks at the Wagah crossing," but now are increasingly coming from hard-headed, pragmatic businessmen too.
Malik can take some of the credit for building the bonhomie between India and Pakistan, so badly shredded after 2008. His tweets consistently push for "positive" ideas between the two countries, and even though he has accused India of "fomenting terrorism" in Balochistan, he has also encouraged officials on both sides to meet and work on cooperation on tracking fake currency, narcotics and smuggling. His idea of a 'hotline' between the two Intelligence Chiefs (Directors of the IBs have met on the sidelines of bilateral meetings) has, however, proven much too radical for the moment.
As the two Home Ministers meet to announce the visa changes, no breakthroughs are expected on the 26/11 trial with divergent positions over what India legitimately expects, and what Pakistan is prepared to do. But given they both share a common, affable style, the two Home Ministers, who are also both former policemen, may be expected to share some common ground as well.
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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