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In Pak, Advani is ‘PM-to-be’

Lahore, June 3: The three best-known Indian politicians, and not necessarily in that order, are L.K. Advani, Bal Thackeray and Laloo Prasad Yadav, political lore in Pakistan has it.

While Advani and Thackeray are considered “hawks and Pakistan- and Muslim-baiters”, Laloo Prasad’s image is the opposite. He is regarded as a serious politician and not a “buffoon” because, in the eyes of Pakistanis, he is the only one who took the RSS and the BJP head on.

But in this classification, Advani and Thackeray are not placed on a par. While the Shiv Sena chief is dismissed as a “Bombay dada” (toughie), the BJP president is perceived as a prospective Prime Minister. Hence, the extraordinary interest in his visit, the people he is meeting, his pronouncements, his body language, etc.

The yardsticks adopted to suss up Advani are formidable: most Pakistanis are aware he cut his teeth on RSS politics, he was implicated in the Babri Masjid demolition, he backed Narendra Modi during the Gujarat riots and he allegedly scuttled the Agra summit.

But it was a revelation for some that Advani was born and brought up in Karachi. “It can’t be, most Partition victims on either side feel sentimental about the country of their birth. Why is Advani so bitter'” asks a shop-owner in Lahore.

At the back of people’s minds are other factors. The Congress, the nucleus of the UPA coalition, is ahead of the BJP by just six seats, the government can be toppled any moment, Manmohan Singh is “remote-controlled” by Sonia Gandhi and that so far, Advani is irreplaceable in his party and Atal Bihari Vajpayee ' still the favourite ' is history.

With these perceptions and factors co-mingling, the picture that emerged was that like it or not, the Pakistani establishment has to do business with Advani, so it is necessary to “soften” him up.

As Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, president of the Pakistan Muslim League, explains: “In Pakistan, it is relatively easy to start and negotiate the peace process as long as it has the military’s support. This, Pervez Musharraf has amply demonstrated.

“There may be fringe groups who will oppose and their concerns are possibly genuine and more in tune with ground realities. But as long as the military wants it, their views won’t matter.

“Not so in India. The ruling coalition is made up of so many parties that one or the other will oppose the Congress. Therefore, it is important to take the BJP on board.”

For the Pakistanis, the BJP’s cooperation matters not just because it is politically significant but because Vajpayee has made a place in the country’s heart as the author of the peace project and also because at a certain level, Pakistan trusts the BJP more than the Congress.

A former army officer said: “The BJP is frontal, the Congress twists the mithi chhuri (sugar-coated knife). The Nehru-Gandhi family’s relationship with Pakistan has been a chequered one. To be fair to Sonia Gandhi, she has started on the right note.”

Of Prime Minister Singh, the reading of a senior journalist who interacted with him during Musharraf’s Delhi visit, is: “I feel the optimism we have placed in him is perhaps premature. He is overly cautious.”

A Lahore-based editor says that barring the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus, there was no follow-up on any of the mutually agreed confidence-building measures, most importantly, the Baglihar dam dispute.

It is against this backdrop of circumspection vis-'-vis the UPA that Advani’s trip has become even more significant to Pakistan. His statement that Babri demolition was the “saddest day of my life” may have a weary ring for Indians, but the Pakistanis lapped it up as the “assurance we were looking for”.

“Ninety per cent of our misgivings were dispelled with this statement,” says Mian Muhammad Munir, adviser to Punjab chief minister Pervez Elahi.

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