Engaging politically

Published : Jun 09, 2001 00:00 IST

The political initiative of Prime Minister Vajpayee raises expectations and also doubts in India and Pakistan.

THE surprise invitation from Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to Pakistan's Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf, to visit New Delhi in July has helped jump-start the stalled dialogue process. The move coincides with the calling off of the six-month-long unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir.

Vajpayee's letter, sent on May 24, talks of "picking up the threads" and walking together on the "high road" to peace and prosperity in the subcontinent. It holds poverty as the common enemy of both countries and maintains that the only way to ensure a secure and prosperous future for the people of the subcontinent is the "path of reconciliation". This goal, it says, can be achieved by engaging in productive dialogue and in building "trust and confidence".

The language used in the letter has been very polite and correct, if one considers the exchanges with Pakistan since the Kargil conflict of 1999. The sudden offer to Musharraf seems to have surprised even the Indian Foreign Office, which was still in the Kargil mode and has not forgiven Islamabad for the breach of trust in that respect. The intrusion in Kargil came within a few months after Vajpayee's historic visit to Lahore. Besides, Indian foreign policy mandarins thought that they had scored brownie points with the United States for its tough stance on issues related to terrorism.

Deputy Secretary of State of the U.S. Richard Armitage had come close to characterising Pakistan as a "rogue" state during his recent visit to New Delhi. His visit had given an impression in Islamabad of a U.S. tilt towards India. India has for long been demanding that the U.S. put Pakistan in its list of "terrorist states".

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's High Commissioner to India, however, asserted that the U.S. authorities had assured Islamabad that Armitage's comments had been distorted and that Washington continued to give great importance to its ties with Islamabad.

DESPITE the growing closeness between Washington and New Delhi, the Bush administration, like its predecessor, will continue its links with Pakistan in the larger interest of regional security. Moreover, Pakistan is a key factor in the U.S. gaining access to the energy resources of Central Asia. The Clinton administration played an important behind-the-scenes role in keeping the contacts between Islamabad and New Delhi alive after Kargil. The U.S. policy has been to encourage substantive Indo-Pakistan talks, Washington itself keeping a low profile. From available indications, the Bush administration is also continuing with the Clinton policy of interceding but not intervening in the India-Pakistan dispute. That the Track-Two dialogue encouraged by the U.S. had begun to yield some results was evident when the Indian government took the decision "not to initiate combat operations" on November 19, 2000.

Pakistan reciprocated by announcing that its troops along the Line of Control (LoC) would observe "maximum restraint". External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told the media in May that there was calm along the border since November and alluded that this was one of the factors that led to the dramatic reversal of the stated policy that no talks would be held with Musharraf. The firing across the LoC, according to him, has virtually come to a halt although infiltration continues.

Vajpayee's invitation to Musharraf also means that the policy of isolating the military ruler has been given up. India had made Musharraf's lack of legitimacy an important issue at international forums. This was one of the reasons India gave in 2000 for refusing to participate in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. The Indian government now seems to have reconciled to the fact that Musharraf is going to be around for some time. In fact, Jaswant Singh had thrown broad hints in April that a meeting with the General could not be postponed much longer.

According to officials, groundwork for the meeting started six months ago. The final decision was reportedly taken during the informal luncheon meeting Vajpayee had with Home Minister L.K. Advani at the latter's residence in mid-May.

Some officials feel that the invitation to Musharraf was one way of further marginalising the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and showing it its place. Another important factor could have been the growing international opinion on Kashmir. The increasing number of custodial deaths and the increasing attacks on the armed forces have not done the country's image any good.

GEORGE S. TENET, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in his testimony to the U.S. Senate, said that the relations between India and Pakistan "remain volatile, making the risk of war between the two nuclear armed adversaries unacceptably high." The State Department's annual report on Global Terrorism, which came days after Vajpayee and Musharraf agreed to a summit meeting, has also not shown any marked deviation from earlier reports. The Bush administration has shown no inclination to put Pakistan on the list of terrorist states.

Pakistani officials are confident about continued support from Washington. They point out that the leading lights of the Bush administration, such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, are known friends of their country and continue to be grateful for the role Pakistan played in the war in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s.

Stephen P. Cohen, whose views on South Asia are taken seriously by the State Department, stated in a recent policy brief that the U.S. should intervene "more weightily" in the dispute over Kashmir if India and Pakistan seem headed for war and encourage discussions on alternative solutions to resolve the Kashmir dispute, but remain impartial in the conflict.

The postponement of the visit of General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, to India could have been a belated effort on Washington's part to appear neutral. Shelton was to have arrived in the first week of June. He was not scheduled to visit Pakistan.

Some South Asia watchers are of the opinion that the invitation to Musharraf was necessitated by political and economic compulsions. Talks with the General will generate a political momentum of its own and could have a positive bearing on the situation in the Kashmir Valley, they say. Peace in the Valley is essential if the government has to tackle other pressing problems, especially those related to the economy. Most indicators show that the Indian economy is heading for difficult times. The Pakistan economy is also in a bad shape.

Jaswant Singh has held out an economic bait for Pakistan before the two sides sit down for serious talks. The proposed oil and gas pipeline from Iran to India passing through Pakistan would mean a revenue of around $600 million annually for Pakistan. Indian industry will benefit greatly if the project materialises. The Ambanis, who have invested heavily in the energy sector, were given an important behind-the-scenes role by the Indian government in Track-Two diplomacy. The Ambani group is also known to have excellent equations with influential sections of the U.S. establishment.

Some moderate elements in Pakistan are of the opinion that too much importance is being attached to Kashmir to the detriment of economic development. They argue that the fate of Pakistan will be ultimately determined by its economic viability as a nation and not by perceived foreign policy triumphs on issues like Kashmir. They feel Kashmiri people must be allowed to choose other options. The military tactics have not brought Pakistan anywhere near its goal of taking control of Kashmir, they maintain.

Both Vajpayee and Musharraf have in their recent exchange of letters stressed the importance of peace for the welfare of future generations. An economically weak Pakistan which is also isolated internationally because of its support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, may be prepared to take a new approach on Kashmir provided the Indian side is equally serious. Islamabad could reduce its covert support to militancy in the Valley if New Delhi is willing to make tangible gestures towards peace. The feeling among senior Pakistani officials is that the political initiative of the Vajpayee government could be undermined by the stonewalling tactics of the Indian bureaucracy.

The Indian Army is apparently of the view that engaging politically with Musharraf may help bring down the scale of violence in the Valley. If the Pakistan Army wishes, infiltration could be brought to an immediate end, the Army top brass feels. The Army's opinion was given due weightage before the decision to call off the unilateral ceasefire in the Valley was taken.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, known to weigh his words, has said that the Pakistani strongman is visiting Delhi with an "open" mind. The Pakistani side would welcome a beginning on the Siachen issue. Both sides had come to a virtual agreement on the issue in 1992. Siachen is also part of the eight-point agenda of the composite dialogue process that both sides have agreed to continue. Another important confidence-building measure would be India agreeing to the proposed gas pipeline.

Jaswant Singh has, however, cautioned against expecting too much from the Musharraf visit. Speaking to members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs in May, he said dramatic results could not be expected. The government's stand on Jammu and Kashmir remained "unaltered". The region is "an integral part of India", he said, referring to the 1994 Proclamation in Parliament to that effect. (Abdul Sattar, on the other hand, has been focussing on "self-determination" and "plebiscite" for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.)

ASHRAF JEHANGIR QAZI, told Frontline that any "dialogue is better than no dialogue". He felt that the responsibility of being nuclear states had made the continuation of dialogue even more urgent. He said that Pakistan had indicated its willingness to discuss all the issues that figured in the agreed framework but emphasised that the issue of Kashmir had to be addressed seriously by India.

Qazi revealed that Washington had been advising New Delhi not to put preconditions for talks so that there could be some progress on the other issues on the agenda. "This could result in a much more positive phase in our bilateral relations," he said. Qazi described India's new initiative in responding to Musharraf's unconditional offer of talks as a "positive change" but said that it had come two years too late.

He said that the U.S. administration remained "engaged" with Pakistan on all issues, including terrorism. Qazi said that the issue of Washington characterising Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism had never arisen. "We may have differing perceptions on certain issues but these are often exaggerated by the Indian media." The envoy also expressed the hope that the Hurriyat leadership will be allowed to meet Musharraf when he is in Delhi. Jaswant Singh has already signalled India's disapproval of the Hurriyat leaders holding a high-profile meeting with the visiting leader.

Qazi, however, pointed out that whenever Pakistani Presidents or Prime Ministers visited New Delhi, they were allowed to meet representatives of the Kashmiri people. He hoped that the dialogue process between the two countries would help in finding a role for the APHC, which Pakistan considers "a representative of the freedom movement in Kashmir". The envoy, however, emphasised that Pakistan did not envisage the participation of any non-state actors in the ongoing dialogue process.

Qazi hopes that both the countries will embark on a result-oriented dialogue process "that will be sustained on the basis of progress towards a settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir problem and all other issues. This may turn out to be an extended process, bearing in mind each other's concerns. We can look forward to a dialogue that would open the doors for wide-ranging cooperation as well as progress towards the final settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir problem in accordance with the wishes of the people of that state". The diplomat admitted that there were doubts in Pakistan about the outcome of the talks. There is an opinion that only third-party intervention will make India compromise on the core issue of Kashmir.

Qazi, however is optimistic. He feels that both Vajpayee and Musharraf are men of vision, who appreciate the need for peace. "The lessons of the past have to be learnt so that there is no breakdown in the future," he said. But he says a lasting peace can only materialise if the issue of Jammu and Kashmir is addressed "with the urgency, creativity and sincerity it requires. If this is done then relations will graduate from a zero-sum game to a win-win situation for both countries."

According to the envoy, the "easy no-talk phase is over. New Delhi has to abandon its policy of trying to isolate Pakistan." The envoy praised the statesmanship of Vajpayee and said that the BJP was able to get difficult decisions implemented. The considered view in Islamabad seems to be that the ostensibly hardline BJP, like the Likud Party in Israel, is the only political party in India that can afford to make concessions and also stick to its commitments.

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