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Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari came out last Saturday with yet another series of statements to cause more than mere ripples in South Asia. He did so especially with pronouncements on the nuclear weapons issues between India and Pakistan that have made many sections in the subcontinent sit up and take notice.

Do these statements, however, add up to a real promise of a new deal for the region, which has continued to be a dangerous place ever since the two rival nations became nuclear-armed neighbors in May 1998?

Addressing India from Islamabad, at a video-conference in New Delhi at “Summit 2008,” organized by the leading daily The Hindustan Times, Zardari offered nothing less than Pakistan’s cooperation in turning South Asia into a nuclear-weapon-free zone, an objective to be achieved through a “non-nuclear treaty.” As he put it challengingly, “I can get around my parliament to this view, but can you get around the Indian parliament to this view?”

He made an even greater impact by his answer to a question about the no-first-strike nuclear policy of India and the possibility of Pakistan adopting the same stand. His response was prompt and positive. He did not stop with saying that Pakistan would not use its nuclear weapons first. He went on to declare that he was opposed to these weapons anyway and to assert: “We do not hope to get into any position where nuclear weapons have any use.”

The official Indian reaction was that Zardari’s statements were not quite official. Voices from India’s establishment, echoed in various media reports, wondered: Whom was the Pakistani president speaking for, anyway? Tauntingly, they asked whether he had the tacit support of Pakistan’s army on this subject.

They had a point. By all accounts, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has remained mainly under the control of the army, which is possessively proud of them. Officially, up to now, Pakistan has not altered its policy by which it has retained the right of first nuclear strike. While India has made much play about its renunciation of this option, Pakistan has maintained from the outset that it could not do so because it lacked parity with its bigger neighbor in conventional weapons.

Pakistan’s new democratic dispensation has apparently kept its distance from the army but not demonstrated its dominance over the generals. Quite the reverse is the message sent out by the government’s attempt sometime ago to acquire control of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the army’s infamous and important arm, and Islamabad’s hasty retreat from the reform under obvious pressure.

Rather surprisingly, there has been no other serious Indian response, not even from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose leadership may have to do business with Zardari with the party’s return to power in the general elections due early next year. The statements, however, elicited more reactions within Pakistan.

Zardari has drawn much flak in his country before for statements considered overly friendly to India. He and the government of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) also had to beat a retreat after his statement in a media interview suggesting that the Kashmir issue could be kept on the back burner. In the video conference, he did not say the same thing about Kashmir but repeated his other controversial remark about seeing no “threat” from India. He may come in for criticisms again on these counts. His stand on the nuclear issue, however, has attracted no opposition offensive for the moment.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League(N), the main opposition, in fact, was quick to claim that he had made the proposals for nuclear peace first. Sharif, who had presided over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons tests a decade ago, let his party clarify: “This was Nawaz Sharif’s proposal as prime minister. On the Pakistan side, the position has always been consistent. But because India refuses to abandon its nuclear weapons, this proposal has been in the doldrums.”

The PML(N) also claimed that the proposal was contained in the Lahore Declaration signed between Sharif and former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on February 1, 1999. While the claims are open to question, observers in Pakistan actually expect the opposition to unleash an offensive against the government on the presidential pronouncements. Front-ranking newspaper The Daily Times, for example, forecasts that a “chorus of criticism will now most probably overwhelm Mr. Zardari’s overtures to India and make them look like ‘concessions.’ “

As for the reactions from uncommitted quarters, they are asking the same questions as India’s establishment. Lieutenant-General (retired) Talat Masood, a political commentator and head of the Pakistani chapter of Pugwash says:”The big question is, can President Zardari take along Pakistan’s ruling establishment, especially the military?” He adds, “Even if (Zardari) was not fully familiar with the nuclear vocabulary, what he possibly meant was that there has to be a strategic restraint regime between the two countries.”

The fact is, the ruling establishments of the two countries have never been ready to consider any “strategic restraint regime” that envisages any reduction of their nuclear arsenals or any reversal of their nuclear weapons programs. They have been ready, in other words, to cooperate only in order to present a picture of “responsible” nuclear armed neighbors to the rest of the world.

This, actually, was the larger purpose also of the Lahore Declaration, signed just nine months after nuclear weapons tests in both countries. The declaration recognizes “that the nuclear dimension of the security environment of the two countries adds to their responsibility for avoidance of conflict between the two countries.” The document voices commitment, not to regional peace as such, but to the “objective of universal nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.”

The declaration calls upon the two countries only to “take immediate steps for reducing the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons and discuss concepts and doctrines with a view to elaborating measures for confidence-building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at prevention of conflict.”

India and Pakistan are said to have made much progress in their “peace process” initiated in 2004. New Delhi and Islamabad, however, have made sure that the nuclear part of the process made no advance beyond what the declaration mandated. The confidence-building measures (CBMs) – which have never gone beyond steps like notification of each other before tests of nuclear-capable missiles – were somehow supposed to create confidence that the people of the two countries were safe even when such missiles stayed in military deployment.

Setting up a hotline between designated officials of the two armies, in order to avert chances of nuclear accidents among other things, has not exactly made the people of the subcontinent safer than before. It has not done so because the nuclear hawks of the two countries have not desisted from threatening use of the weapons by design. Terrifying nuclear threats have been traded, as we have recalled more than once in these columns, between the two countries during the Kargil conflict of 1999 (following on the heels of the Lahore Declaration) and the fearsome confrontation of 2002.

The peace process has not prevented the nuclear militarists in both countries from pursuing their projects. The period since the declaration has seen both participating in a missile race, displaying no coyness about its nuclear dimension at all. In 2004, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf boasted: “My government has spent more money in the last three years on enhancing Pakistan’s nuclear capability than (spent for this purpose) in the previous 30 years.” We do not know whether the country’s current economic crisis has made any difference in this regard. Successive Indian governments may not have been forthcoming with similar figures. There is little doubt, however, that under the shroud of secrecy, they have swelled with the same pride over their misuse of taxpayers’ money to build weapons of mass-murder.

At one point In the course of talks on CBMs, the rulers of India and Pakistan even agreed to seek “parity” with nuclear powers (P5), “consultations” with them “on matters of common concern,” and development of a “common nuclear doctrine.” The idea has not been pursued seriously, but has not been abandoned officially.

This strange partnership of sworn nuclear rivals does not make the proposal from Pakistan’s president sound like a reliable promise for the peace-loving people of the region.

J. Sri Raman is a freelance author and peace activist in India. He is the author of ” Flashpoint.”