With hope and scepticism

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

A sense of disbelief marks Pakistan's response to India's `hand of friendship'.

in Islamabad

THE `hand of friendship' extended to Pakistan by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on April 18 was precisely what the former had been waiting for the last 16 months, since ties between the two countries hit the nadir in the wake of the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001. However, it is equally true that a sense of disbelief pervades the entire Pakistani establishment. Important establishment figures, including President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, have only one question on their minds even as they speak about how the subcontinent would become a zone of peace rather than of potential nuclear conflict - what prompted the Indian Prime Minister to reach out to Pakistan at this juncture?

After all, did External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha not claim recently that Pakistan was a `fit case for Iraqi style pre-emptive strikes'? Did Defence Minister George Fernandes not echo the same views even as he characterised Sinha's statement as `casual'? And did Yashwant Sinha not reject the calls of the United States to engage Pakistan? Did he not ask the George W. Bush administration as to why it did not hold talks with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein?

In such a context it is only natural that the unexpected offer of friendship by Vajpayee to, in the words of Yashwant Sinha, the `most irresponsible state in the world', should arouse scepticism. Three weeks after the initial offer and the subsequent announcement by Vajpayee about the desire of New Delhi to restore `full diplomatic ties', the Pakistani establishment has not been able to figure out the motivation behind the initiative. Nonetheless, the offer is welcome in Pakistan for a variety of reasons. To begin with, Pakistan is critically dependent on the U.S. for its economic and military needs and could ill-afford to antagonise Washington. The Bush administration has been nudging it for several months now to engage with India by creating the `conducive atmosphere' New Delhi has been demanding. It is important to remember that in June 2002, when India and Pakistan were on the brink of a conflict, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the subcontinent. The much-publicised commitment given by Musharraf to Armitage to put a `permanent end to infiltration' across the Line of Control (LoC) helped defuse the situation.

Is it a mere coincidence that the third enterprise by Vajpayee to settle all issues with Pakistan `once and for all' has come close to yet another visit by Armitage? The only difference this time round is that the initiatives taken by both Islamabad and New Delhi have preceded the journey of the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

The easing of tensions with India is good news for the Pakistani military establishment for another reason too. Recent weeks have witnessed a sudden spurt in militant activities by suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives on the western borders of Pakistan. The U.S. has virtually put Pakistan on notice to set its house in order vis-a-vis the western front. So, it suits them to have it relatively quiet on the eastern front, that is, on its border with India.

During his recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai talked about handing over a list of fugitives supposedly sheltered in Pakistan. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry was surprised as the demand for handing over of fugitives came from the most unexpected quarters. Recently, a U.S. Army Commander in Afghanistan told a Pakistani daily that Pakistan needed `to do more' to stop infiltration into Afghanistan. Although Pakistan is used to listening to demands asking it `to do more' to stop infiltration, it never came from Afghanistan. So India's `hand of friendship' takes some pressure off Pakistan, at least on the eastern border.

As for the domestic scene, help from Vajpayee could not have come at a more opportune time for both Musharraf and Jamali. Both are in the midst of a political crisis over the validity of controversial amendments made to the Constitution by the military regime. Opposition parties have paralysed the newborn Parliament and are preparing for a major showdown. Engagement with India would provide the much-needed diversion for the government and will help it tackle the Opposition better

It is against this backdrop that the reaction of the Jamali government to the Indian initiative is to be seen. Notwithstanding the conditions put forward by Vajpayee, the response is positive and on expected lines. Pakistan announced that it would `re-appoint' its High Commissioner to New Delhi and proclaimed that Jamali will "respond in a concrete form" to the Vajpayee offer. On May 3, Jamali formally invited Vajpayee to visit Pakistan and called for resumption of talks on all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir.

Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri had indicated earlier that Islamabad's response would consist of some confidence-building measures (CBMs). At this juncture it is not clear if the CBMs would seek to address the main concerns of India, cross-border terrorism and terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. Kasuri, on his part, once again expressed Pakistan's willingness to set up a neutral mechanism to verify charges of infiltration across the LoC, a proposal that is not acceptable to India.

The only important indication from the Foreign Minister was that future talks between India and Pakistan would begin with interaction at the level of officials. He said: "I believe first it would be at the level of officials. Then it would proceed to the level of Foreign Ministers and culminate in a summit at a later date." The Minister was at pains to emphasise that nothing would be achieved by haste and that solid groundwork was needed before contentious issues were taken up at the highest level. Perhaps this is based on the experience at the Agra Summit of July 2001.

Kasuri termed the Indian overtures as "better late than never" and added: "Pakistan is ready to start the dialogue process so as to hold meaningful discussions on all outstanding issues between the two countries, including that of Jammu and Kashmir. It has always been our policy that we must have High Commissioner-level relations. We have always called for the holding of a composite dialogue between the two countries for purposes of peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir."

Responding to a question, he said that the credit for a move towards the resumption of normal relations goes to Musharraf and Vajpayee. He said that during the Agra summit, the declaration was ready to be signed. Since then other things had happened, including extremely coercive display with the armies of the two countries standing eyeball to eyeball, he said. However, he described it a "success of Pakistan's foreign policy that it did not respond to the aggressive policy of the other (side)". He said the beginning of the talks process would enable the two countries to focus on economic and social development of their peoples.

In effect, Kasuri means that New Delhi has done what it ought to have done long ago. It is significant in more than one sense that the Foreign Minister gave Musharraf the credit for the latest twist of events. It is an endorsement of the India policy pursued by the General and could create complications as the two sides prepare to take the road to peace once again. Resumption of civil aviation and possibly sporting links can be a welcome goodwill, enabling the two countries to work on the many contentious, fundamental issues. Undoubtedly, Jammu and Kashmir is the most contentious of the problems that have dogged the two neighbours for decades.

In this context, the statement of Vajpayee that this is the `last' attempt by him (in his lifetime) sounds alarming. Issues that have evaded solution for 55 years could not be expected to be resolved with yet another effort. It would require a great deal of patience, endurance, statesmanship and, most important, give-and-take on both sides.

From Lahore to Agra, the roadmap to subcontinental peace has had many a false starts, resulting in further hostility and suspicion. Both the establishments have also to counter hardline elements within as well. Perhaps in this context, the fast pace of offers and counter-offers of peace and friendship made over the last two weeks of April makes sense. Increasing or reopening cultural ties, relaxing visa restrictions and promoting people-to-people contacts could help ease the tensions. And then, there is the possibility of regional cooperation a la South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

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