NEW DELHI: Setting out an ambitious agenda for improving relations with India, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari Saturday indicated a change in his country's policy by backing no first use of nuclear weapons and called for scaling up trade and visa-free travel between the two countries.
"I am against nuclear warfare altogether. Most definitely," Zardari replied when asked if Pakistan would adopt the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. This is the first time a Pakistani leader has spoken about non-first use of nuclear weapons against India.
He was addressing the concluding session of the two-day Leadership Summit organized by the Hindustan Times here via video-conferencing from Islamabad.
"We do not hope to even get to that position when we have to use (nuclear weapons)," he said while proposing a South Asian non-nuclear treaty.
"I can get my parliament to agree to it right away. Can you (India) get your parliament to agree to it?" he asked.
"I do not feel threatened by India and India should not feel threatened from us," he underlined.
Zardari's remarks appeared to signal a radical departure from Pakistan's nuclear doctrine. Pakistan has always argued that since its deterrence is very small it was not in a position to accept no first use of nuclear weapons doctrine.
Indian officials were taken aback by Zardari's remarks.
"If he means what he says, then it's a change in their policy," an Indian official, who did not wish to be named, told IANS when asked about his reaction to Zardari's remarks.
T.C.A. Rangachari, who served as India's deputy high commissioner to Pakistan, said: "We have to wait and see. Zardari's remarks about no-first use have to be seen together with his stress on a South Asian non-nuclear treaty."
Both India and Pakistan became de facto nuclear weapon states in 1998. India announced a no-first-use policy long time ago.
"This is a significant change. This is against the proclaimed nuclear policy of Pakistan. But it will depend on whether he can get the Pakistani Army, which controls the nuclear arsenal in that country, to accept this position," K. Subrahmanyam, an eminent strategic expert, told IANS.
"This sentiment is something we should welcome and explore at the official level," he said.
India and Pakistan have already signed an agreement on not attacking each other's nuclear facilities. In 1994, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government presented a non-paper to Pakistan about both counties agreeing not to use nuclear weapons against each other. Pakistan did not respond.
Zardari, the widower of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, also struck an upbeat note about scaling up economic engagement with India that could revolve around free trade and greater economic integration in the framework of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
"There was a little bit of an Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of a Pakistani in every Indian. And therefore the two countries should join together and help each other," he said.
"I am for improving relations with India and improving trade," Zardari, who has been advocating greater economic ties between the two countries since he became president nearly three months ago.
"Yes, let's open each other's border and trade. We can both mutually benefit from trade. If you can trade with China, why not with Pakistan?" Zardari said in words that echoed India's long-standing advocacy of more trade, including intra-Kashmir trade, to improve ties with Pakistan.
He hoped that India and Pakistan would become an economically unified zone like the EU. However, he refused to comment on the possibility of a single currency for the two countries.
In a reply to a separate question on the economic situation in Pakistan, he said he did not believe in aid but trade for pushing economic recovery in his country as he was looking at the market of over a billion people in India and China.
In yet another significant statement that has the potential to transform relations between the two neighbours, Zardari made a pitch for special e-card that could enable freer travel between the two countries for their citizens.
"I am hopeful we will find methodology. We could have special card of some sort - an e-card which you show at the border and just walk in," the Pakistani leader said when asked about liberalization of the onerous visa regime that exists between the two countries.
Indicating a positive agenda for a lasting rapprochement with India, Zardari said that he had approached parliament for the constitution of a caucus that could go into all the problems between India and Pakistan, including the Kashmir issue.
The caucus would especially look at resolving the Kashmir dispute and the possibility of developing trade between the two countries, he said.
"Let the people of India and let the people of Pakistan decide. Let's take the challenge to the people of India and Pakistan," Zardari said when asked about his ideas for solution to the decades-old Kashmir dispute.