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A high-stakes initiative

Print edition : Jun 20, 2003 T+T-
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee addresses a rally in Srinagar on April 18, where he made a call for a fresh peace process between India and Pakistan.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee addresses a rally in Srinagar on April 18, where he made a call for a fresh peace process between India and Pakistan.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

As India and Pakistan enter into a new phase of engagement, realisation seems to have dawned on New Delhi that an end to cross-border terrorism cannot be a precondition for talks but a logical culmination of the process of dialogue.

PRIME MINISTER Atal Behari Vajpayee's arrival in Germany on the first leg of a three-nation European tour was heralded by the drama surrounding his statement of intended political retirement. Asked specifically about his ongoing peace initiative with Pakistan by the news magazine Der Spiegel, he remarked that in the event of failure, he would have no option but to "accept defeat" and "retire". The tone and the spirit of his response were of course sanitised in the stark print in which it was presented to the world audience. But in the context of his recent declaration before the Indian Parliament that he was embarking on his "third and last" effort at rapprochement with Pakistan, it was read as an index of the deep emotional investment that he was making in the current effort. Attempts to unravel the Prime Minister's true intent only deepened the enigma.

But the practitioners of foreign policy on both Indian and Pakistani sides were left in little doubt about the stakes involved in their renewed mutual engagement. And the slow and incremental process that was adopted seemed the best insurance against failure. Success and failure were two terms seemingly excised out of the discourse with deliberate intent. The main focus, instead, was on setting a course that would open up possibilities for long-term dialogue and engagement. Vajpayee could, in this sense, consider his final effort a success if he manages to keep the dialogue process on track through the remainder of his tenure at the top.

Vajpayee himself had little to say beyond reiterating frequently the sincerity of his wish for peace. Just as frequently, he seemed to be in need of reminders of the mantra that India had tenaciously clung to for long - that talks would not be resumed without the cessation of cross-border infiltration. But in its more recent invocations, this demand has been far less strident. Vajpayee has increasingly been tilting to the view that an end to violence cannot be a precondition for talks, since logically, the former could only be the culmination of the process of dialogue. In an address to German parliamentarians in Berlin, he provided a fairly definitive affirmation that the precondition did not apply: "Even while we continue to deal with our specific problem of cross-border terrorism, I have extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan in the hope that it may initiate a process leading to peace, friendship and cooperation between our two countries".

Evidently, an effort seems to be under way to ensure that all top functionaries within the government spoke the same language. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, who had been among those pleading the case for the continued ostracism of Pakistan - even advocating a pre-emptive strike in line with the newly minted United States doctrine - abruptly reversed tack and began speaking of talks as a real possibility. In an interview to Financial Times, London, Yashwant Sinha qualified the demand for an end to cross-border terrorism. The end of violence, he said, would be a precondition for a successful outcome to negotiations, rather than to the actual commencement of dialogue. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani remained a relatively silent bystander. He is evidently reserving whatever he has to say for his visit to the U.S. in early June. Since he is going at the invitation of Vice-President Dick Cheney - one of the most uncompromising and dogmatic elements in the current U.S. administration - the similarly inclined Advani is expected to enjoy a receptive audience in Washington. His visit will be followed in less than a fortnight by that of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Although India has reaffirmed its insistence that there will be no third place at the negotiating table, the U.S.' role as a channel of communication and a source of ideas is being transformed rapidly into that of a mediator. The cause of dialogue won an unexpected endorsement from the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, Qazi Hussain Ahmed. It was an overture that bore faint echoes of Vajpayee's own rationalisation of his peace initiative. But if the Indian Prime Minister was seeking to pre-empt the threat of U.S. intervention, the leader of Pakistan's main theocratic party was grappling with the fact that his country was already firmly under U.S. overlordship. "We invite India to help stop U.S. interference in this region and decide our problems amicably ourselves," Ahmed told a conference of the faithful on May 25 in Lahore. He added the caveat that dialogue with India would be pointless unless Kashmir was recognised as the central point of dispute between the two countries. And he threw in the accusation that the Pakistan government had lost sight of basic priorities in its enthusiasm for a new engagement with India.

Characteristic of the cautious approach was the very hesitant progress of the confidence-building measures proposed by both sides. India was the first to suggest the restoration of air links. Pakistan responded favourably but thought that the resumption of rail and road transport connections should also be given priority. India was fearful that this would only facilitate the cross-over of undesirable elements. And with this uneasy disagreement persisting, Pakistan declined to consider granting overflight rights to Indian aircraft. On May 26, just ahead of Vajpayee's departure for Europe, India announced that the bi-weekly bus service from Delhi to Lahore would be restored once the technical details were worked out. There was no word yet on the rail link. But the ambiguity over Pakistani airspace remained, compelling Vajpayee's special aircraft to take a longish detour en route to Europe.

On trade relations, there was much vigorous debate but little forward movement. The Pakistani decision to unfetter trade in 78 items was dismissed as tokenism by India as it was far short of the requirements under the South Asian preferential trade rules and the requirements of the World Trade Organisation. In late May, the Pakistan government began a series of meetings to consider the extension of "Most Favoured Nation" status to India. But for the extraordinary state of relations between India and Pakistan, MFN status would be an inescapable mutual obligation enjoined by the two countries' membership of the WTO. Pakistani business interests remain wary about the possibility of a potentially ruinous influx of Indian goods into their country. Another, more pragmatic, segment argues that this is a needlessly alarmist scenario, since adequate safeguards can be built into trading arrangements, with the WTO dispute settlement mechanism being available as the final recourse. A Pakistani parliamentary delegation that visited India in early May is believed to have proposed a dialogue between the two countries' apex chambers of commerce. There has not been any suggestion yet that the two governments would like to delegate the task of charting the future course of trade relations to the chambers of commerce.

A great deal of ambiguity continues to shroud the core issue of cross-border infiltration. After a tour of forward areas in the Jammu and Kashmir sectors in May, Army Chief of Staff General N.C. Vij reportedly informed the Union Home Ministry that infiltration of militant elements had dropped noticeably. To the media though, he insisted that there had been little change in the situation. However, at roughly the same time, Ajai Raj Sharma, Director-General of the Border Security Force, went on record stating that there was a definitive finding that infiltration was down, though not sufficiently low to warrant a relaxation of guard.

Immediately after his tour of the frontier, Vij provided a glowing account of one particular operation that the Indian Army had undertaken on Hill Kaka in the Surankote area of Jammu. The Army chief was disinclined to categorise the target of the operations as a terrorist camp. Hill Kaka, he explained, was a topographic feature that dominated the Surankote bowl and provided a convenient launching area for terrorists bound for the Kashmir Valley. The Army operation had interdicted successfully some of the infiltration routes and destroyed supply lines for terrorists, he claimed. Later, media reports attributed to high-level field commanders spoke of a major Army operation codenamed "Sarp Vinash", which had taken out a full-fledged terrorist settlement on Hill Kaka and eliminated a number of infiltrators from across the border. Media reports indicated that considerable lethal weaponry had been assembled by the terrorists on the heights, and the amenities that had been built up resembled those of a small township. There were muttered imprecations about another failure of Indian intelligence that almost matched the Kargil episode. These rather gross exaggerations spoke either of divided counsel within the higher echelons of the Army command or of an elaborate effort to camouflage a major operation that was under way to interdict all routes of infiltration. There are some indications that the Army's new vigour in the border areas is not encountering the customary kind of hostile action from Pakistan. Although it may be too early for a definitive conclusion, the relative quiescence of the armed forces on the other side could be an indication that the political resolve to clamp down on the sponsors of violence is trickling down to field commanders and their units.

Musharraf, meanwhile, continues to suffer the chagrin of seeing his guided democracy experiment going awry. The Pakistan National Assembly remains deadlocked because of the opposition demand that he should shed his Army uniform if he is to enjoy the prerogative of addressing a democratically elected body. The conglomerate of far-Right Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), indicated recently that it would be inclined to compromise on the issue, but only if it was assured that its basic charter of demands would be met. Needless to say, this is a charter that does not accord a very high priority to peace with India, except as an expedient to keep the U.S. at bay. Eager to dispel any impression that the diarchic situation in Pakistan could impede a dialogue with India, Musharraf himself went on record recently with the assurance that any future negotiations would be led by Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Doubtless with a view to appear reasonable, he did not underline the fact that his right to veto any prospective agreement is enshrined in the Legal Framework Order (LFO) promulgated shortly before the electoral process in Pakistan began last year. For the moment, the Army and the civilian government are projecting an overt appearance of mutual harmony. But, the National Assembly remains recalcitrant to the notion of Army oversight. This may be a forewarning of greater turbulence in the days ahead, when the need to engage with India begins to take a toll of the Pakistani Army's most fundamental beliefs.

In mid-May, veteran Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar met former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Jeddah. Over a five-hour conversation, Kuldip Nayar detected a deep sense of betrayal in Sharif. That Vajpayee had given Musharraf an easy exit from the increasingly tenuous situation he found himself in was, in Sharif's perception, a tragedy. A democratic government in India, Sharif suggested, should not negotiate with a military dictatorship that had overthrown a duly elected government. Sharif holds Musharraf singularly responsible for the premature demise of the Lahore peace initiative. There is, of course, little that is new here, since Sharif had advanced very much the same argument in his defence when he was put on trial by Musharraf for hijacking and attempted murder in 2001. A few of the points that Kuldip Nayar gathered may serve as straws in the wind. For instance, Sharif claims that he came to know that Pakistani Army regulars were involved in the Kargil adventure only when Vajpayee called him up with an angry complaint. Until then he had been going by the Army's assurances that mujahideen irregulars - who operated with little else than moral support from Pakistan - were solely responsible for the radical effort to relocate the Line of Control (LoC).

It was Musharraf who then pressured Sharif into petitioning U.S. President Bill Clinton to bail Pakistan out from the situation in which it was embroiled. And Sharif's visit to Washington on July 4, 1999 was a personal humiliation from which he never recovered.

Bruce Riedel, a top U.S. intelligence official who was a participant in that meeting, has provided a vivid account of a Pakistani Prime Minister who was desperate to extract some concession on Kashmir. Sharif reportedly complained bitterly that his effort to obtain a time-frame from Vajpayee for discussions on Kashmir had been rebuffed rudely. Clinton then reminded him that India was well within its right to refuse any concessions when it was under attack by Pakistan. The circumstances being what they were, the only way out for Pakistan was an unconditional withdrawal to its side of the LoC. Sharif then demanded that the U.S. involve itself more closely in South Asian affairs and coax India to shed its refusal to discuss the future status of Kashmir. To this, the U.S. replied that it could mediate only if both sides requested it to. As it slowly began to dawn on him that he had no option but an unconditional withdrawal, Sharif was left clutching at straws.

Finally he extracted a face-saving insertion into the agreed statement, that Clinton would take a "personal" interest in moving the Kashmir issue towards resolution. This was just not adequate to appease the far-Right constituencies at home, including the military brass. Sharif returned to Pakistan a deeply tormented man, determined to use the first opportunity to get Musharraf out of the way. That he himself was cast onto the ash-heap of history in the effort is an index of where the real power in Pakistan resides.

If past is prologue, then the new phase of engagement between India and Pakistan is likely, sooner rather than later, to encounter the Kashmir roadblock. The Pakistani Army believes that relenting even slightly on Kashmir would impair its pivotal position in domestic politics. The civilian dispensation that holds nominal authority today is more inclined to take the pragmatic view, which has its adherents in India too. The restoration of peace in Kashmir, in this perception, would be a natural outcome of the normalisation of relations between the two countries. And with India and Pakistan having escaped from the bruising polarities of the Cold War and moved onside with the ultimate arbiter of global strategic matters, they would bear the entire blame for any further impediments to concord.