Behind the game

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

President Musharraf's keenness for a dialogue that focussed more on issues other than Kashmir is proof of his domestic political compulsions in the changed global circumstances.


'ACCIDENT-PRONE' India-Pakistan relations have acquired a kind of insurance cover. It means that Islamabad-New Delhi ties can survive even without any progress on the 'core' issue of Kashmir.

The outcome of the April 17 talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf in New Delhi reflects a new realism in both India and Pakistan. The latest engagement at the highest level has little to show in terms of progress on the substantive issues and yet it has given reason for both sides to be satisfied.

A good measure of the credit for the atmospherics witnessed before, during and after the talks goes to Musharraf. In recent weeks, he has staked a great deal in the peace process with India.

Musharraf created the latest round of engagement out of nothing. He virtually invited himself to India on the pretext of watching one of the games in the India-Pakistan cricket series. By making it known through a media interview that unlike his predecessor Gen. Zia-ul-Haq (who flew across to watch an India-Pakistan match in Jaipur in 1987) he would never 'gatecrash', Musharraf left New Delhi with little choice but to extend a formal invite.

Once it came, the Pakistan President began to change the 'rules of the game'. "Kashmir is more important than cricket. I would like to take advantage of my travel for substantive talks with the Indian leadership on Kashmir and other subjects," was his refrain since the day the Indian Prime Minister sent him a written invite. And Musharraf appears to have deliberately chosen the last match in New Delhi for his visit. Certainly, cricket was not on his mind. Musharraf wanted to be seen in the company of the Indian leadership in New Delhi in the full gaze of the world.

Musharraf, who appears mellowed by the changed circumstances in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, sought to achieve several objectives through his latest India mission. Ironically, these objectives were aimed more at constituencies within Pakistan than those outside.

For the Pakistani nation, Musharraf and the military establishment, much has changed since the Agra Summit in July 2001 or, to be more precise, since the twin towers in New York came tumbling down less than two months later. With one stroke Pakistan lost its 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan and had to side with Washington when it militarily took on the Taliban and launched a hunt for Al Qaeda. As a consequence, friends turned foes and the soft borders of Pakistan in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, bordering Afghanistan, turned hard.

Since the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001, Pakistan is tied down on its Afghan border fighting the rebels from Afghanistan who have found shelter in the tribal belt. The stirrings in Afghanistan have found an echo in different parts of Pakistan as Al Qaeda and the Taliban try to turn the heat on the Pakistani establishment.

The unrest in Balochistan, the growing resentment among smaller provinces over 'Punjabi domination' and the quest of the Pakistani middle class for greater economic opportunities are some of the other factors that have led to the new geo-strategic thinking of the military establishment.

So, unlike Agra, where Musharraf was invited for a summit, this time around he invited himself. He chose everything x the date, the venue, the agenda and all the nuances that follow it. In a way, the onus of making his visit a success was squarely on his shoulders.

Musharraf clearly conveyed that the date was all about staying on course and exploring 'common ground on the core issue of Kashmir', for onward movement, and that it is a process and not an event.

Within this broad framework, Musharraf attempted to reassure the conservative constituencies, which keep voicing reservations on the process, that the engagement with India was about the 'Indianisation of Pakistan'.

Part of the support for Musharraf's 'engage India policy' came from very unexpected quarters. The heightened anti-U.S. sentiments in Pakistan after the October 2001 military intervention in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led coalition have made the religious parties in the country to advocate better ties with India. It is not a coincidence that the religious parties have been quiet on the conciliatory gestures of Musharraf towards India.

At the height of the India-Pakistan tensions in March 2003, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the ultra-conservative Jamaat-e-Islami (J.I.), had urged the Pakistani establishment to make peace with India. He reasoned that it was better to make peace with India than depend on the U.S. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Islamabad six weeks later.

Musharraf has encountered no difficulties in selling his peace process with India within the country. The only condition critics insist on is: "No unilateral concessions. Let us not stray from our traditional stand on Kashmir without flexibility from India. Please do not forget the Kashmiris."

The food for thought he served at an iftar party in November 2004 that Pakistan was willing to look for options outside United Nations resolutions, including joint control of the Valley, triggered protests of 'sell-out and U-turn on Kashmir' from conservatives. So have his latest statements on the bus service as being the first step towards the conversion of the Line of Control (LoC) as a 'soft border' and the peace process as 'fairly irreversible'.

The Nawai Waqt media group, which reflects the sentiments of the traditional anti-India constituency in Pakistan, pointed out in an editorial: "If the ongoing composite dialogue is an indicator, the Kashmiris are nowhere near their goal. India is still unwilling to go beyond confidence-building measures (CBMs)."

Without rubbing it in, Musharraf wanted to stress in New Delhi that Kashmir was still the uppermost concern of Islamabad. Hence the emphasis on Kashmir-centric CBMs. As the two sides inch towards a 'full and final settlement' of the issue, there could be measures to give 'comfort' to Kashmiris, he pointed out. Improving the human rights situation in the Valley and facilitating greater people-to-people to contact among Kashmiris were two such areas. His plea to get Kashmiris on board at some stage of the dialogue was aimed to address the apprehensions of hardliners such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

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