Three days in Karachi and two in Lahore do not provide sufficient credentials for a summary statement on Pakistan. One impression is still overwhelming. Men and women at practically all levels could not be friendlier. Gestures of affection spilled over: it was as if long-lost relatives, for whom the pining had gone on for decades on end, have suddenly chosen to call, and the hosts were grateful beyond measure. A visit to a fishermen’s village on the fringe of the Karachi port was quite some experience. There was a mad rush, of not just the fishmongers but also the women and children in the households, to sneak up next to the venerable guests and have their pictures taken; each of them then pounced upon the photographer, wheedling out a promise that they would receive copies of the photographs. The intensity of the ardour went further. Many insisted on the visitors sharing a meal, however modest, with them.
At the other end of the spectrum, glamorous banquets on the sprawling lawns of palatial houses belonging to hoary old Sindhi families such as the Khuros and the Talpurs. Nostalgia is never a one-way street. A migrant from Bulandshahr or Shimoga or Bhagalpur would inquire fondly of the current goings-on in their former habitats; visiting Indians would shoot back similar questions about old friends from Larkana or Faisalabad with whom they went to school, or ask what happened to those two teenage beauties who were the talk of the town in Multan sixty years ago.
At Lahore the visitors did the standard sightseeing, throwing in Anarkali, Shalimar Gardens and the singer Noorjehan’s abode. A few of them preferred other spots of pilgrimage, such as the Lahore Government College (now a university), the Forman Christian College and Saadat Hasan Manto’s tomb at Niami Sahab. Yet others marvelled at the majesty of the masonry and the elegance of the Urdu: after all, Lahore is the city of both Mohammed Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Everywhere, the visitors were the epicentre of near-frenzied adulation — and of course never-ending photo sessions. A resounding vote for aman.
Kashmir remains the sore issue, and the outcome of India’s recent state assembly elections has naturally generated nervousness. But the welcoming brigades were more than ready to shove such thoughts aside for the occasion. The ambience was of courtesy and understanding, embraces were instant conductors of not just warmth but empathy, guile of any kind was out of the question. The folly of heads of both nations has claimed as victims two-and-a-half generations on either side. The Pakistanis that one met were certainly — and one is prepared to lay a wager on this — prepared to reverse the situation. Altruism is as altruism does. Even so, the fact that Pervez Musharraf is singing a particular song at this moment need not be a mere diplomatic gambit. Some pressure from the populace too is conceivably influencing his mood.
One realization seems to have percolated into the psyche of many constituents of the Pakistani middle class: the war lobby could never be their saviour. Ordinary people prefer to go about in their quiet ordinary ways, they worry over the level of market prices, over problems of admitting children to school, over the travails of daily living. They are increasingly aware of the infructuousness of mounting defence expenditure, even when largely financed by foreign sources. Not just funds raised domestically, but external assistance too, could be channelled to education, public health and other social services once the defence budget got slashed. That ruling juntas everywhere have a vested interest in spending less on public education is also slowly sinking in: the longer the time horizon of illiteracy and lack of social awareness, the easier it is for the rulers to put it over the masses the fable that all their woes are on account of the wretched Indians. True, these are views not explicitly discussed. But university dons and the young set of journalists are forthcoming enough; lawyers and members of other liberal professions have been steadily swelling their ranks. The India bogey, in other words, is no longer a comfortable legal tender for Pakistan officialdom.
Strike the iron while it is still hot. The problem, however, lies at the Indian end, or such is the apprehension in some quarters. It is time to ask ourselves; are we ready to reciprocate, or are we to rest on the assumption that the feelers from Islamabad are exclusively America-inspired — when the season ends, it will subside' Judging by the experience at the Wagah border, coming and going both times, the Indians’ response till now is primly cool. The Pakistani customs and immigration officials behaved as civilized human beings and the formalities were completed in less than a minute for each passenger, with the standard examination of papers and documents concentrated at a single point. On the Indian side of the border, rudeness was the order of the day; passengers, incoming as well as outgoing, were intercepted at half-a-dozen different spots, the general atmosphere was one of chaos, and each passenger was presumed to be a terrorist whose purpose of travel must be of the vilest kind.
Maybe this is too harsh and hasty a conclusion to reach. The iron of security has nevertheless entered the soul of the Indian strategy-carvers. Perhaps, alongside the military lobby, a parallel security lobby has also taken over in New Delhi. Entrenched lobbies of this genre are permanent enemies of peace and normalcy, since any lowering of temperature will rob them of their profession — and their prosperity. In both countries, the encounter in the final analysis is between those who want to live under a tranquil sky and those who love the two nations to be hostage for ever to the whims of authoritarian cabals. The cabals play to the gallery, or try to. They also play to cheap emotions. The week’s travels across Pakistan have armed one with the feeling that, at least in that country, the much derided peaceniks have been able to make a dent in the protected territory hitherto jealously protected by the sectarian opportunists.
The other conviction this fleeting visit to Pakistan helped to foster should not surprise. Sub-nationalism dies hard and excessive centralization of power and resources is bound to face rising resistance in the countries of the subcontinent. In mid-December, finance minister of Pakistan’s four provincial governments — Punjab, Sindh, North-Western Frontier Province and Baluchistan — had a confrontation with the national finance commission and the federal finance minister. The principal issue to be decided, the provincial representatives told the Centre, is the proportion of the total tax revenue collected by the federal government that should devolve to the provinces together. Once the quantum of this kitty has been settled, its inter se distribution among the states is a matter that must be left to the provinces, the Centre must not meddle.
At the moment, this proportion of Central tax collections going to the provinces is only 37 per cent. Since the provincial governments are primarily responsible for such areas of public concern as health, education, irrigation, drainage, roads, power supply and so on, they must have — the finance minister of the provinces could not be more forthright — at least 50 per cent of the total revenue accruing to the Centre. In India, what the states at present receive from Central tax collection is not even 30 per cent. And India’s state governments are still to develop the kind of unity of purpose their counterparts in Pakistan are demonstrating.
On the face of it, despite the military regime, public finances are more decentralized in Pakistan than over here. The states in India are lagging behind in another respect as well: they have failed to present a common front in the fiscal war against the Centre. Some of them actually play the role of Uncle Tom in the hope of getting a little extra favour from the Centre at the expense of other states.
India has, no doubt, a smarter set of economists and smarter fiscal experts. But they are presumably ashamed of harbouring sub-national passions. Success in snatching away funds from the Centre, which effective sub-nationalism implies, could however be a blow for peace and tranquillity. The less money the Centre has, the less will be available for the jingo lobbies led by army and security brass. Who knows, Pakistan might well set an example for India in this area.