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General in the dock

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

In New York, Prime Minister Vajpayee scores in projecting India's concerns over cross-border terrorism vis--vis Pakistan. President Bush gives him a sensitive hearing and, by all accounts, gives Musharraf a "hard message".

EVEN before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his delegation reached New York for the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly and, more important, for the bilateral meeting with United States President George W. Bush, the broad agenda for the talks with the U.S. leader was in place.

It was clear that the focus of the Bush-Vajpayee meeting was to be on the width and depth of Indo-U.S. relations and their long-term prospects, and that neither of the countries wanted to discuss India-Pakistan relations. However, the issue inevitably figured in the discussions since the U.S. had been keeping a close watch on the developments in the subcontinent. Washington is concerned about the terrorist infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) from Pakistan and the violence witnessed during the run-up to the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

On September 9, three days before the Bush-Vajpayee meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an indication of the U.S. administration's thinking. Addressing mediapersons after meeting External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, Powell said that the situation across the border was discussed.

Powell told this correspondent: ``I reaffirmed to the Minister that we would continue to press the Pakistani government to do everything possible to stop cross-border infiltration and remind them of the commitment they have made not only to the United States but to the international community that they would not support such activity and would work actively to stop it.'' He added: ``And we also talked about the upcoming elections [in Jammu and Kashmir]. And I reaffirmed to the Minister that we have spoken to the Pakistanis about not interfering in any way with those elections, which we expect will be free and fair, and there will be an opportunity for people to see that it is being held in such a manner.''

Yashwant Sinha said that he was ``absolutely, totally satisfied with the discussion that we had and what Secretary Colin Powell has just now said''.

In Washington, Yashwant Sinha made it clear that the focus and thrust of the Bush-Vajpayee talks would be on bilateral relations and listed five or six areas the two leaders and delegations could take up for discussion high technology, cooperation in space, civilian nuclear technology, economic and defence dialogue and regional and global issues.

Several Indian officials emphasised that while Bush and Vajpayee did talk about the subcontinent in relation to Pakistan, it was only a ``small'' component of the 35-minute-long discussion in which, by one account, Bush touched on several issues.

According to Indian officials, Bush and Vajpayee noted the ``positive developments'' in the realms of counter-terrorism and defence cooperation, and both leaders stressed that bilateral relations would be improved.

The discussion on the developments in the subcontinent was critical from India's point of view, for at the meeting the U.S. President is said to have unambiguously condemned terrorism and once again cast aside the distinction, made in some quarters, between terrorism and ``freedom struggle'' in order to justify violence.

Apparently, Bush said that the U.S. would continue to use its leverage to push for peaceful elections in Jammu and Kashmir. He was emphatic in his opposition to finding alibis for terrorism and asserted that there was no justification for acts of violence. Bush is also said to have emphasised the point when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf met him. However, Musharraf subsequently denied that any of the issues had come up during his talks with Bush.

Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, said: ``In fact, I can convey to you he [Bush] did speak in very strong terms to Gen. Musharraf.'' Brajesh Mishra told mediapersons that Bush had given a ``hard message'' to Musharraf on both cross-border terrorism and sponsorship of violence in the run-up to the elections in Jammu and Kashmir. According to Mishra, Bush had reiterated the ``total commitment'' of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism. Mishra also met U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

In the context of the latest killings in Kashmir and the loud protestations from Musharraf that ``nothing'' was happening across the LoC, Vajpayee had the subject of terrorism very much in his mind, apart from the response India had made to Musharraf's address to the U.N. General Assembly.

At a meeting with Congressional leaders in New York, the Prime Minister stressed that only a global and comprehensive effort could counter the threat of terrorism. Vajpayee said that although the coalition against terrorism had made considerable headway in Afghanistan, a lot more needed to be done ``further East''. He said that if tensions persisted in South Asia it was on account of Pakistan not living up to its commitments.

Vajpayee warned that if the international community was unable to rein in Pakistan, then India would have to find its own ways to achieve its objectives. Vajpayee said that India was as determined as the U.S. had been since September 11 to secure itself against terrorism.

THE focus of the Bush-Vajpayee meeting on the larger aspects of the bilateral agenda has created optimism that the Republican administration will persuade Congress and the other agencies concerned to remove the restrictions and regulations that stand in the way of deepening cooperation, be it with respect to high technology, space or civilian nuclear technology.

The Bush administration is also aware of the fact that some of the legislative and regulatory restrictions imposed on India date back to the 1980s and there are still some anti-proliferationists in various agencies who would grumble against relaxations. But if the White House were to lobby directly on Capitol Hill and in the administration, it would be a different story.

It is not without reason that in his meeting with lawmakers from the Tri-State Area, Vajpayee expressed the hope that the evolution of U.S. laws and regulations would reflect an awareness of the strategic perspective of the current state of Indo-U.S. relations. More important, the Prime Minister is said to have stressed that it did not befit bilateral relations in the post-Cold War era if the U.S. continued to look at India in the narrow context of South Asia.

In New York, Vajpayee also met several heads of state and government, including those from Denmark, Japan, Afghanistan, Mauritius, Zambia, Bulgaria and Sri Lanka. Officials said that apart from terrorism, each of the meetings dealt with global issues on hand and the necessity to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

Vajpayee also met a number of community leaders, participated in a reception hosted by the Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Lalit Mansingh, and addressed a community gathering. One of the important meetings he had was with a delegation of the American Federation of Muslims from India. The head of the delegation, Rahman Nakedar, attacked the Hindu fundamentalist outfits responsible for the violence in Gujarat and expressed disappointment with the State government's handling of relief and rehabilitation. Nakedar said: ``The process has been slow and discriminatory.''

At the reception hosted by the Indian Ambassador, Vajpayee said that the Gujarat violence was not a ``good thing'' and that wherever he went, it was discussed. He said: ``A situation should not be created at home which forces us to bow our heads in shame before others.''

IRRESPECTIVE of what Musharraf may have wanted others to believe about what transpired at his meeting with Bush, the fact remains that the General was told that Pakistan should return to ``true'' democracy and that it should put ``an end'' to the infiltration across the LoC.

Musharraf's claim that there was no discussion about infiltration across the LoC flies in the face of what a senior Bush administration official said while summing up the meeting of the two Presidents on September 12. In the course of a 30-minute meeting, Bush emphasised the implications for the U.S. if an end to cross-border infiltration did not come about. The U.S. President also linked the ending of infiltration with progress on the ``underlying issue'' of Jammu and Kashmir.

A senior official, in the course of a background briefing on the Bush-Musharraf meeting, said: ``He [Bush] stressed that we wanted to see an end to infiltration across the Line of Control... He put this in the context of saying that U.S. interests would be harmed greatly by a war in the region.'' The official added: ``We have a big stake in South Asia.We hope that an end to infiltration will create the atmosphere that could lead to a resumption of dialogue between the two states.''

When asked if Bush discussed tensions in Jammu and Kashmir with both Vajpayee and Musharraf and if the President felt the latter had made any progress on his commitment, the official said: ``The President... pushed the Pakistanis hard on the question of infiltration across the Line of Control, but he also noted that this is basically the precursor the ending of infiltration is the precursor of setting the environment where you can make progress on the underlying issue.''

The Bush administration has come under fire for not pulling up Musharraf for the amendments made to the Constitution and for attempting to subvert democracy. At his meeting with the General, although Bush welcomed the continuing cooperation of Pakistan on the terrorism front, he minced no words on the subject of a return to genuine democracy.

``Adherence to democracy is key,'' Bush is reported to have told Musharraf. The senior official said: ``He [Bush] hit it hard at the top of the meeting. I think he made it clear that his vision is that Pakistan will not succeed unless it goes down the road of democracy, and that if it doesn't succeed, that would be bad for the entire world. He kept on stressing, `we want to see you succeed,we have big stakes in this. If you don't adhere to democracy, we'll all have trouble'.'' The official added: ``The President said that adherence to democracy was the key. If Pakistan is going to be a successful state, then democracy has to take root. There wasn't any discussion of specific penalties...''

The Republican administration is in a spot over Musharraf's amendments to the Constitution. U.S. officials are dismayed that the General has amended the Constitution to such an extent that it might be difficult to ``certify'' the coming elections as being democratic. On the other hand, Pakistan being a key ally in the war against terrorism, especially as it pertains to Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the U.S. is reluctant to go after Musharraf. It goes without saying that the Pakistan President is trying to exploit this to the fullest extent possible.