Legend has it in the South Asian sub-continent and beyond   that the pilgrim gets to visit Ajmer and offer prayer at the shrine of   the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti   ( c. 1142 – 1230 AD)  only when there is a ‘bulaava’.   This quintessential   Hindustani word  may be inadequately translated as a call (beckoning ?)  from an intangible but  irresistible force – the higher agency - that is differently described as faith  or religion among  the millions who inhabit the extended South Asian region.

Pakistani President Asif  Ali Zardari is scheduled to pay a personal visit to Ajmer on Sunday (April 8)  to honor a ‘mannat’ (vow)  that he would offer prayer at the shrine of the ‘gharib nawaz’ – the honorific used for the  Sufi saint and in the process, a brief detour has been scheduled in Delhi where a Zardari-Manmohan Singh luncheon is on the agenda. 

The meeting between the two leaders has  been differently interpreted in both countries and a pattern is discernible, wherein the conservative elements are skeptical of the need and the outcome of such an informal high level meeting. The reasons advanced include the fact that  the bi-lateral relationship is weighed down under the lack of progress on the Mumbai 2008 attack and the focus is on groups such as the  LeT and its leader Hafiz Saeed  (now in the news with a US award against his name ) and that the Pakistani  President wields  little power or influence in relation to Pak policies apropos Kashmir, support to terrorist groups and the nuclear weapon capability – three issues that directly impact India’s security and strategic interests.

However Mr. Zardari is not just a ceremonial Head of  State but a major player in the politics of  Pakistan – post the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto - and a man who has survived the violence and venality of  Pakistan’s military dominated power structure.  After the rejection of the Musharraf  rule by the people of  Pakistan, despite many internal fissures and vulnerabilities, the PPP led by the Zardari-Gilani combine has been able to provide Pakistan  a civilian led government – which may be the first to complete its tenure without a  military coup or some other disruption.

Since assuming office in March 2008, Pakistani PM Gilani with the support of his party – the PPP – led by Asif Zardari has demonstrated a surprising tenacity and survived many challenges  including a stricture by the Pakistani Supreme Court. In this period the Zardari-Gilani combine have managed the post Osama bin Laden-Abbotabad  national shame and humiliation and kept the powerful Pak military within  some kind  of  constitutional boundaries. Concurrently this civilian government has managed to improve the bi-lateral relationship with India even while   Pak-US  ties have touched an all-time low over the  Pak military's duplicity in the war on terror, US drone attacks and more.

In short, the Zardari leadership will be noted for having progressively restored the credibility of the legislature in Islamabad even though real power still lies in the  Pak Army GHQ  in Rawalpindi.   Notwithstanding the many allegations and personal attacks on his past conduct, President Zardari has always supported  improved relations with India  and made some radical suggestions on the nuclear front when he assumed office that startled the Pak ‘fauj’ – and he was forced to  withdraw from this position.

In recent months, after considerable hand-wringing among the anti-India brigade, the Gilani government was able to convey its formal approval for Pakistan to accord  India  the MFN status for trade and related commercial activity. While this is yet to be fully implemented, it is evident that the bi-lateral relationship is indeed making progress on some tracks -  even if  it is very slow and halting.

Against this backdrop  the Zardari  personal visit to the Ajmer dargah overlaps into the political  domain and PM Manmohan Singh is to be commended for taking this initiative to host a one-on-one luncheon meeting (with no aides and note-takers) despite the criticism that he has  had to deal with since the Mumbai attack of November 2008.  Yes, even before embarking on the India visit, President  Zardari has reiterated the Pakistan position on Kashmir and it is likely that PM Singh will insist on speedy action in regard to the Mumbai attacks.

But the sub-text of  moving ahead in areas where both nations are able to,  is the most desirable option in the larger interests of the region and its people. At a fundamental level, Pakistan needs to change its attitude towards India  and its interpretation  of  Islam,  if it is to pacify the many virulent internal socio-religious forces it has unleashed since the General Zia ul Haq era.

At a symbolic level, the Ajmer shrine and what ‘gharib nawaz’ epitomizes may well be the direction that the soul of  Pakistan most needs in its current situation. The prevailing Wahabi-Salafi dominated discourse in Pakistan about  the inflexible, gender-biased  tenets of Islam that must be followed are a sharp contrast to the more empathetic and tolerant tradition that the Chishti  order nurtures and it is to President Zardari’s credit that he is making a public visit to a Sufi shrine in India. For a lay person of the South Asian region,  ‘gharib nawaz’ transcends religion and is equally revered across the spectrum.  The well known song “Khwaja mera Khwaja”  from the film ‘Joda Akbar’ captures what has eluded the sub-continent due to  corrosive narratives, divisive politics and  ruthless  power  struggles.

There will be no breakthroughs at the Sunday luncheon meeting but  in extending such courtesies to the visiting Head of state of an important neighbor, PM Singh will embellish his own profile as a  thoughtful leader – who though beleaguered in his own domestic constituency – has a steadfast vision for the region in the near  future and is willing to deal with the brickbats  and bouncers that India and Pakistan are  well-known for – especially on prime time TV !