A new engagement

Print edition : June 06, 2003

The renewed dialogue with Pakistan that the Prime Minister's `hand of friendship' promises may constitute India's last opportunity to work itself out of the tutelage of the United States.

in New Delhi

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

A MONTH had elapsed since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made his dramatic "hand of friendship" declaration in Srinagar, but the road ahead for India and Pakistan remained enveloped in a haze of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. The two countries had proved eager, twice in the recent past, to rush to the summit table to celebrate every momentary upward tick in the political mood. This time around, India proved more circumspect. In a change of form from the prelude to the 2001 Agra summit, it was Pakistan that was showing the greater ardour to get things moving.

Pakistan's response to the overture was effusive in tone, though not perhaps in substance. While reciprocating India's proposals to upgrade the diplomatic missions in either country and resume direct air and land transport links, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali also suggested that sporting encounters be resumed. He announced that Pakistan would add another 78 items to the positive trade list, allowing unfettered transactions with India. Further, he said, a number of Indian fishermen who had been detained while in Pakistan's territorial waters, as also a group of would-be economic refugees interdicted in Pakistan on their way to greener pastures elsewhere in the world, would be released.

Jamali articulated Pakistan's enthusiasm for negotiating the nuclear dimension in neighbourhood relations. Although he spoke explicitly and exclusively in terms of the 1999 Lahore Declaration, which allowed for mutually negotiated nuclear risk reduction measures, elements from his government were soon embellishing his proposal and building a case for a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia. This was met with an almost ritualistic rebuff from India. The spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry pointed out with some asperity that Pakistan's nuclear programme was targeted against India, and the converse was not true.

President Pervez Musharraf.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

India's initial indifference to Pakistan's ardour was occasioned in part by divided counsels within, evidently an indication that the attitude of reconciliation that Vajpayee struck in Srinagar had not permeated all levels of government. Although the confidence building measures (CBMs) proposed by Pakistan were welcome, the official spokesperson said, they did not go far enough. India's overarching concern with the cessation of cross-border terrorism had not been addressed. And the limited liberalisation of trade did not quite bring Pakistan in conformity with the agreed rules of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The circumstances strongly suggest that India's attitude was influenced by a concurrent effort to test the waters in the U.S. Three rounds of crucial confabulations involving the U.S. had been scheduled in the days after Jamali's announcement. The Prime Minister's National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, was en route to Washington for discussions with his U.S. counterpart. He would also have an elaborately rehearsed, though supposedly spontaneous, meeting with U.S. President George Bush. On his way to Washington he would halt in London to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, himself travelling to Kabul, Islamabad and Delhi. Shortly after this rather eccentric sequence of meetings was concluded, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was scheduled to confer in Moscow with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on account of a fortuitous intersection of their travel itineraries.

The U.S., by all accounts, was treading with extreme caution. In May 2002, when tensions between India and Pakistan escalated rather steeply, Powell and Armitage had travelled to both capitals to advise against any precipitate action. Both had endorsed the honesty evident in Pakistan's effort to end cross-border terrorist violence, and urged it to do more. This was the classic diplomatic ploy of trying to placate both parties to a dispute by conceding partially something on either side. In a special display of indulgence towards India's ruffled sensitivities, the U.S. President himself had intervened to tell Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf that he needed to stop infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC): "He must do so. We and others are making it clear to him that he must live up to his word."

Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali.-TARIQ AZIZ/AP

India was gradually talked out of its belligerent posture. But there was a tacit warning held out from the U.S. that the elections scheduled for Jammu and Kashmir late last year needed to be as "inclusive" as possible. Concurrently, Musharraf was put on notice about the need to ensure that both the election process in Pakistan and the political dispensation it gave rise to retained both domestic and international credibility.

A year on, the U.S. still remained indecisive and unwilling to mediate between India's demands and Pakistan's claims. On his most recent visit to the two countries, Armitage followed much the same tack as last year. In Pakistan, he affirmed that infiltration across the LoC had come down substantially from the same time last year. Shortly afterwards he was in India, facing down scepticism about this assertion by according India the sole right to decide how Pakistan was behaving. Both sides were put on notice, though, that the language of threat and bluster would not be accorded a receptive audience in the U.S.

The need for India and Pakistan to talk was affirmed not merely by Armitage but also by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, who held discussions with Mishra and Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmod Kasuri in quick succession.

Members of the visiting Pakistani parliamentary delegation with CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav in New Delhi on May 9.-RAJEEV BHATT

Understandably, Pakistan proved quicker than India to accept the tutelage of the U.S. Yashwant Sinha, who had clearly been blind-sided by the Prime Minister's Srinagar declaration, clawed back into the frame with a tough statement from Moscow on the need for Pakistan to drain the "reservoirs" of terror and choke the "pipelines" through which it flowed into India. He claimed after a meeting with Powell that this had been the basic tone of his discussions with the top U.S. diplomat.

Within his own party, Vajpayee was not receiving a cordial hearing. Bharatiya Janata Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu asserted, for form's sake, that the party stood fully with the peace initiative of the Prime Minister. But he added two important caveats: that India's insistence on the cessation of cross-border terrorism had not been waived and that Pakistan should concede India's sovereignty over the sections of Kashmir under its occupation. This did not put the BJP or its parent organisation - the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh - at variance with Vajpayee, claimed Venkaiah Naidu. After all, both themes have been affirmed across the political spectrum and represented a national consensus.

Vajpayee himself said little and retreated to a holiday in the cool climes of Himachal Pradesh. His last major intervention was an address to Parliament on May 8, at which he hinted, obliquely, that India's insistence on the cessation of violence in Kashmir may not be a realistic posture. "We can go on repeating like you wanted to know, whether terrorism has stopped," he said in response to specific inquiries from the Opposition and his own benches. "If I say terrorism has come down, then you will say reduction means nothing, it has to stop totally. Terrorists too are divided. There's politics even amongst them. It will be a serious matter if all terrorists were to emerge from one source. But the reality is different. We even got signals that things are changing."

These prime ministerial locutions speak of a more subtle understanding of the political realities in Kashmir than may be suggested by the numbing insistence on Pakistan's culpability for all violence. But Vajpayee is clearly constrained by the prevalent mood within his party - and its larger ideological affiliates - to apologise for his "hand of friendship" declaration. Addressing Parliament, he seemed to indicate that the hand was extended on impulse, by the spectacle of what he saw in Srinagar at the first public meeting addressed there by a Prime Minister since 1987: "The scene at that meeting must have stunned the neighbour. Even if it didn't stun them, in our hearts it created an enthusiasm. We are here because of these people and these people are with us ... That day I realised that it is time to take a new step."

This variety of impulsiveness is not something that a Prime Minister normally owns up. But the explanation of his supposedly spontaneous gesture towards Pakistan suggests that the plea of impulsiveness is itself an elaborately rehearsed one. After conceding to the sin of impetuosity, for instance, Vajpayee went on to explain that his declaration was also influenced by "an international incident that took place" at the same time. Without going into details, Vajpayee explained that the "manner in which Iraq was attacked, (and) the United Nations left ineffective", it appeared that "it was time to think of the future of smaller countries, developing countries and non-aligned countries".

BSF officers welcome prisoners released from Pakistani jails after they entered India at the Wagah border post on May 18.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

The dawning prime ministerial realisation that the developing countries needed to work themselves out of the tutelage of the U.S. was, rather surprisingly, being undermined almost at the same time by his National Security Adviser. Addressing the American Jewish Committee on May 8, Mishra proposed a strategic triad between India, Israel and the U.S. to combat global terrorism. Such an axis, he claimed, would be able to take decisive action against terrorist forces without unnecessary distraction and agonising deliberations over the "root causes". To wild applause from the assembled gathering, Mishra denounced the "root causes" argument as "nonsense".

There could be a number of questions raised about the propriety of a senior Indian official addressing a sectarian grouping in the U.S., which represents a policy orientation totally opposed to India's time-honoured traditions. But the AJC has been a port of call for Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani too during recent visits to the U.S. It remains to be seen whether he will grace the portals of the Zionist lobby during his visit to the U.S. in June at the invitation of U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The railway station in Attari, the last stop of the Samjhauta Express train, which runs between India and Pakistan, being spruced up after the resumption of the peace process. The train service was stopped on January 1, 2002.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

It is significant that Advani will be followed to the U.S. by Musharraf. As a signal of a special bonding, the military dictator will be received by Bush at his weekend retreat in Camp David. It remains to be seen whether Advani will be impelled to pre-empt this developing relationship by promising greater fealty to the U.S.-Israel axis beforehand. But the renewed engagement with Pakistan today is totally contrary to the policy paradigm that he has for long advocated. The dialogue promised by Vajpayee's Srinagar declaration, to the extent that it could take place, would be India's last opportunity to work itself out of the stifling tutelage of the superpower. The alternative would be to fall victim to superpower diktats. Vajpayee seemingly realises this, though his principal adviser and his deputy still seem rather obtuse to reality.

The visit of a parliamentary delegation from Pakistan contributed to the atmospherics of the new engagement. But the conspicuous neglect of the visitors by the government was a signal that the visit was still rather premature. Pakistan, meanwhile, was announcing its own schedule of meetings. A reciprocal visit by Indian parliamentarians will take place to Pakistan soon, said the Pakistan media with attributions to unnamed sources in the Foreign Office. Track II (or non-formal) diplomacy would soon begin, said other sources. And the official dialogue could start without further delay, on the basis of the 1997 formula of discussing the two issues of Kashmir and peace and security separately from six other matters of contention between the neighbours.

Pakistani Rangers watch as people cross into the Indian side of the border at Wagah.-ARIF ALI/ AFP

As these exchanges begin, Pakistan is torn by the uncertainties of the civil-military dynamic that were singularly responsible for wrecking the Lahore initiative. The National Assembly elected on the restrictive "graduates only" criteria is unable to agree with the self-appointed President and Army chief, on the legal validity of the order under which a semblance of electoral democracy was brought back to Pakistan.

Negotiations over Musharraf's "Legal Framework Order" have been continuing for a month and more, without producing anything approaching a consensus. Paralleling the diarchic situation in Pakistan there is in India too a deep schism between those who would like autonomously to seek peace in the neighbourhood in the common interests of the people of both countries, and those who would prefer to be understudies to the sole superpower in its project of global dominance. Wisdom has dawned in certain quarters. But the unenlightened sections still retain the power to sabotage any return to sanity in the neighbourhood.

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