A change in the mood

Print edition : February 02, 2002

There are clear signs that a large section of Pakistani society wants an end to the conflict and a new beginning in the country's relations with India.

FOR some weeks now, every night at 9-45, the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV) airs a current affairs programme titled "News Night". A post-September 11 phenomenon, it has become popular among diplomatic circles in Islamabad in short period.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar in Islamabad.-MIAN KHURSHEED/ REUTERS

The slick programme features some of the most articulate persons in Pakistan's civil society. It offers interesting insights into the thinking of the elite. Presumably a reflection of the 'liberal and tolerant' position of the military regime, the discussion does provide a forum to express a variety of views. For instance, it was unthinkable that someone would have had the gumption to argue the case of a "broad-based and representative" government in Pakistan when the Musharraf administration was harping on the theme in the context of Afghanistan in October and November. Similarly, earlier no one had dared to question the direction of and philosophy behind the country's Kashmir policy.

For people who have watched the programme every night after December 13, there have been enough signals that the rulers and the elite of Pakistan are fervently in favour of an end to the ongoing confrontation with India. "Enough is enough. Let us make a new beginning," was the refrain of a number of people who appeared in the programme.

However, there is one aspect that should be of concern to India's civil society, if not the ruling National Democratic Alliance. Thanks to the unabated rhetoric of NDA leaders which is matched by actions on the ground, Pakistan's civil society has begun to wonder whether New Delhi is genuinely interested in the resolution of its differences with its neighbour.

Even Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf could not resist the temptation of 'thinking loudly' in the course of an interview to a Western television network if the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections were the real reason for the bellicosity of the Indian leaders. Union Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader M. Venkaiah Naidu promptly denied the charge and accused Musharraf of interfering in the internal affairs of India.

However, such an impression persists in Pakistan - and perhaps with some logic. The haste with which Union Home Minister L.K. Advani saw the hand of the all-pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the shoot-out before the American Centre in Kolkata only helped reinforce it.

As if the charges and counter-charges with regard to the Kolkata incident were not enough to add to the already volatile situation on the border, New Delhi went ahead with the Agni missile test. Islamabad viewed it as an "intimidating tactic" and denounced it as a move with grave implications for stability and peace in the region.

If Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar is to be believed, Islamabad only chose to refrain from going ahead with its own Shaheen missile test. Sattar told a foreign television network that Pakistan deferred its missile test as such a move could have only contributed to the escalation of tensions in the subcontinent.

There is little doubt, after listening to the views of the participants in the PTV programme, that Pakistan has begun to experience the economic pinch in the wake of the military build-up by India. Estimates abound about the costs incurred by both sides in bringing the forces to the front lines. Pakistan is faced with a serious economic crunch - despite the liberal bail-out packages offered by a host of Western allies of the U.S. after it decided to cooperate with them in the war in Afghanistan - and there is growing frustration over what is perceived as India's 'stubborn' attitude. Pakistanis wonder what India wants now, especially after the January 12 speech of Musharraf, in which he outlined several measures to address India's concerns.

To the Indian contention that it would like to judge the Musharraf government in terms of deeds rather than words, Pakistan's reply is that the rhetoric and the military build-up would only add to the burden of Musharraf who is trying to implement his 'new policy' on extremism. Sattar is partly responsible for the mess, especially on the list of 20 fugitives New Delhi wants Islamabad to hand over. At a news conference, Sattar declared that Pakistan had its own list of people to be extradited and will soon hand it over to India. Sattar's statement appears to have clearly put the establishment in a bind, particularly after his Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh declared that India would work overtime to extradite any Pakistani fugitives based in India.

The Pakistan Foreign Office tried to wriggle out of the controversy by urging New Delhi to come to the negotiating table to discuss the sensitive 'legal and political' issues related to extradition. However, the damage had been done and the rescue efforts proved to be insufficient. At this juncture came the Kolkata incident and Advani's charge. Islamabad saw it as yet another example of how India was hell-bent on defaming Pakistan.

The trading of charges goes on amidst serious efforts by several influential players, such as the U.S., to defuse the tension and persuade both sides to pull back their armies from the border. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell flew down from Washington to discuss the situation with the Musharraf government and later with India. Another important visitor to Islamabad and New Delhi was the Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley. What is important is that he deemed it necessary to return to Pakistan for a second round of discussions with Sattar. The Foreign Minister announced after the second meeting that Pakistan was willing to consider seriously some of the 'concrete ideas' spelt out by Manley. It is evident that there is no dearth of diplomatic activity, behind the scenes and in public, and yet there is little change in the ground situation.

Pakistan wants the international community in general and the U.S. in particular to play a role in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. But India is unwilling to play ball: it is opposed to any third-party role, including that of the United Nations. Aware of the sensitivities of New Delhi on the subject, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was cautious while offering his good offices to solve the problem. Annan, who dropped his plan to visit India as his 'calendar did not match with that of New Delhi', had a tough time in Islamabad. Having taken earlier the position that the U.N. Resolutions on Kashmir were not automatically enforceable, he was under pressure from Pakistan to say something in its favour. As a result, his visit proved to be a futile one.

Observers in Pakistan believe that Washington must resist the temptation to mediate on Kashmir as India and Pakistan have the capacity to resolve this dispute by addressing the basic issues one by one. They think that U.S. diplomacy should focus on convincing the two countries to undertake direct negotiations on security issues, including on arms control.

How long the stand-off will continue is anybody's guess. The earlier it is defused, the better. Musharraf is scheduled to visit the U.S. in the second week of February on a special invitation from President George W. Bush. He is pinning his hopes on the visit but the invitation is not expected to be anything more than a symbolic gesture. Perhaps it is an expression of gratitude by Bush for everything that the General has done in the last few months in response to demands from the international community.