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The message from Musharraf

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Gen. Musharraf, who readily accepted Vajpayee's invitation, appears to be the winner in the first round, but he is sure to face problems from constituencies in Pakistan that are simply not reconciled to the prospect of peace with India.

THIS was the invitation the military ruler and the self-styled Chief Executive of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf, had been waiting for ever since he assumed power in a bloodless coup in October 1999. And yet when it came, he was simply left groping for a suitable response.

Of course the mild-mannered and low-profile Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Inamul Haq, took less than two hours to announce on the state-controlled Pakistan Television that the military government would respond 'positively' to the much-sought dialogue with Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

But the fact is that he took more than 72 hours after the letter was actually delivered to make public his gladness to accept India's invitation.

Thereby hangs a tale. More than anyone else, the shrewd General, considered to be the architect of the Kargil war that wrecked the Lahore peace process, is aware of the minefield ahead of his scheduled summit meeting with Vajpayee in New Delhi in July.

No doubt Musharraf has ensured that his flanks are well covered, as he certainly does not want to go down the Nawaz Sharif way. His four-para reply to Vajpayee is not just cleverly drafted, keeping in mind the domestic audience, but also projects him as a man committed to the cause of 'Kashmiris', which remains the core or the sore issue, depending on the way you look at it. He employed the favourite phrase of the Pakistan Foreign Office - the right of Kashmiris for self-determination - while sounding as reasonable as possible. The brief response said he looked forward to a summit meeting with Vajpayee for "sincere and candid" discussions to resolve the Kashmir issue in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

The dilemma of Musharraf was two-fold and self-inflicted. Having harped on the theme for months - that he was prepared to meet the Indian leadership "at any time, anywhere and at any level" - there was no way he could have spurned the offer. He had no option but to accept the invitation to visit New Delhi.

And having built up the hysteria in Pakistan that unlike Nawaz Sharif the military government would never settle for anything less than Kashmir as the main focus of the agenda, he had to weave in the Kashmir conflict in the letter as the "root cause" of the tension between India and Pakistan.

Undoubtedly round one in this new war of wits between New Delhi and Islamabad goes to Musharraf. In response to the sentiment expressed by Vajpayee that a strong, secure and stable Pakistan was in the interest of Pakistan, the military ruler sought to hit India where it hurts most when he retorted: "We wish to see a stable and prosperous India at peace with its neighbours". The subtle message was that it was time India bought peace with its neighbours before it dreamt of emerging as a big power in the region. And Pakistan was the first among the neighbours with whom it needed to patch up. Also implied was that without resolving the Kashmir dispute any aspirations of India to project itself as a major power in South Asia made no sense.

On the other hand, having now announced his readiness to visit New Delhi to break bread with Vajpayee, the biggest problem facing Musharraf is from within Pakistan. There are far too many constituencies in Pakistan, encouraged and nurtured by the military at some time or the other, that are simply not reconciled to the prospect of peace with India.

The likes of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Al-Badar are simply not prepared to believe that India wants to engage Pakistan to resolve the differences on outstanding issues. They are just not prepared to believe that India would agree even to discuss the Kashmir dispute, leave alone proceed towards peaceful resolution of the five-decade old conflict. Resolution of the Kashmir issue for them simply means India handing over the territory on a platter.

If it is partly their conviction, it is partly their compulsion as well. They have engaged in the game of jehad for too long for a sudden disengagement. So they believe the latest 'U-turn' by India, in inviting Musharraf for talks, is yet another 'honey trap'. All the rhetoric, in the aftermath of the invitation, from the heads of the militant outfits based in Pakistan, flows from this conviction.

Sample one of the items on the website of the Lashkar. (Forget about the English. It is not the tongue the jehadis relish any way.) "We will never stop jehad even there will be thousand times Vajpayee-Musharraf discussions: Lashkar-e-Taiba. Vajpayee's throat will be cut in front of Lal Qila. Bal Thackarey will be dragged in Pattiyala and Advani will be broken into pieces in Amritsar, says Prof. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of Markaz Ad-Dawa Wal Irshad Lashkar-e-Taiba."

The military government should thank such militant outfits for the small mercies. The Laskhar did not issue a press statement or publicise the views of its chief on Musharraf's acceptance of the Indian invitation. It simply put out an item on its website for those who wished to browse.

However, the message for the Musharraf regime is clear and straight. If it is interested in surviving, it should avoid the temptation of repeating what the Nawaz Sharif government did in Lahore in February 1999. The hardliners and hawks in Pakistan have conveyed in no uncertain terms to Musharraf that he is welcome to go to New Delhi but he should be prepared to sing their song.

The legitimate question would then be why was Musharraf so keen on a dialogue with New Delhi given the fact that India is ruled by a coalition led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. The answer lies in the precarious economic situation of Pakistan and the tremendous international pressure it is facing.No doubt there was an equal amount of pressure on India to engage its nuclear-armed neighbour. But the pressure on Pakistan was certainly much higher. Even China, the most dependable friend of Pakistan, joined the rest of the world in counselling the military regime. If the pressure from China was moral, the push from the West (read the United States) was real. Pakistan cannot afford to ignore the signals from the powerful Western capitals for too long as its economy survives on drip from international financial institutions. The release of the promised tranche is subject of course to the unstated 'good conduct'.

Besides, until recently the military regime was desperate for international legitimacy. What more could the junta ask for than a desire on the part of the big neighbour to engage it in a dialogue, especially when New Delhi had been maintaining since 1999 that it not would talk to a military establishment?

When New Delhi's letter came, the General simply jumped at it, even overlooking the terms and framework under which the offer was made. The military, which was angry with Nawaz Sharif for agreeing to the Composite Dialogue Process (CDP), has now agreed to the same process. The military, which frowned on the Lahore Declaration as a compromise on the position of Pakistan, is now willing to move ahead under the same agreement.

If Vajpayee and Musharraf do manage to make some progress and somehow succeed in freeing the relations between the two countries from the shackles of Kashmir, the scope for dialogue indeed is enormous. There is no dearth of issues on which there is need for India and Pakistan to come together, and there could be cooperation.

Nuclear risk reduction is one area the whole world is concerned about. Since May 1998 experts on both sides have been advocating the urgent need for both countries to examine the subject and arrive at some understanding.

Take economic ties. The scope is unbelievably vast. The current volume of official trade between the two countries is below $250 million. The estimate of unofficial trade is $1 billion. It has the potential to reach $10 billion if both sides are prepared to lift the barriers. Business community on both sides has been crying hoarse for freedom to trade.

By any reckoning it would be indeed a long and arduous journey. That too if both countries are genuinely interested in moving forward rather than look for an opportunity to score points against each other. The pitfalls ahead were evident from the two separate press conferences addressed by Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and India, Abdul Sattar and Jaswant Singh respectively, before Musharraf sent his acceptance letter.

The rash statements, first by Sattar and then by Jaswant Singh, almost derailed the peace process even before the dates for the summit were set. Perhaps their rhetoric on Kashmir was for the consumption of the various constituencies that have developed a vested interest on the dispute in their respective countries.

But these interests cannot be wished away. They would be eagerly waiting for the outcome of the summit to take their turn. And that brings into focus the vital question about whether there has been adequate preparation both in India and Pakistan to sell the peace process to the various constituencies. This question is of supreme importance for Pakistan where there are no institutional checks and balances, thanks to the military rule.

Interestingly, eminent columnist M.A. Niazi wrote in the daily The Nation that it is almost possible that Vajpayee is getting his revenge for Kargil, by a single masterstroke that will destabilise the Musharraf government, whatever the results of the negotiations.

He believes that Pakistan is at its worst bargaining position since 1972, when India held 90,000 prisoners of war (PoWs). Unlike Vajpayee, Musharraf has no institutional mechanisms to build a consensus about a possible deal. So he will have to attempt extraordinary measures such as all-party conferences or individual or group consultations. "Anyone he leaves out, such as Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, are going to ride hard on him, whatever the results of the negotiations," says Niazi.

He also says that if Musharraf was to go the Nawaz way, be it the dissent among the ranks, or the economy, the excuse will be the sell-out of Kashmir. He speculates that the only chance of survival for Musharraf is to ensure that the negotiations break down and then hope that the U.S. would have mercy on him.

Vajpayee, he says, is sitting pretty. He will be able to sell himself at home as a peace-maker. If he strikes a favourable deal on Kashmir it will go down well at home. And if there is no deal, he will still be the peace-maker.

Taking the discussion a step further, M.B. Naqvi, a senior journalist, writes in The News that a failed summit can be a nasty thing, and can create more frustration as a result of the failure of heightened expectations. The article points outs that adequate groundwork is needed before the summit, the seriousness of the scenario must be taken into account and, above all, the two sides should be willing "to make compromises on important issues, often called principles" for such a summit to succeed. Naqvi also suggests a Franco-German model for a basic, people-to-people reconciliation in the Kashmir Valley.

As the debate rages on, expectations tend to rise despite all the bitter experience, the bleak ground reality and the overwhelming cynicism.

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