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September 8, 2000

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The Vajpayee visit E-Mail this report to a friend

'The ball is in Mr Vajpayee's court'

Savera R Someshwar in New York

Pakistan's chief executive was late for his press conference at the UN in New York on Thursday evening, but that did not prevent General Pervez Musharraf from either taking potshots at India or fielding with aplomb the numerous questions relating to Kashmir. He did flinch a bit though, when labeled a dictator. And just about managed a smile when called 'benevolent despot,' even as he denounced the media for "distorting facts."

General Musharraf began his packed press conference with a statement dealing with four major issues: his impressions of the UN Millennium Summit, Kashmir, democracy and the domestic scene in Pakistan.

His impressions of the Millennium Summit

I would like to begin with my impressions of the time I have spent here. I feel this Summit has seen two issues come into focus. The first one is the issue of peace and conflict and dispute resolution. This is an issue in which we are in total agreement with the UN. However, we believe that the UN needs to have a stronger implementation process in place. This is the world's biggest organisation dedicated to peace.

The other point I would like to stress on is poverty and debt relief. This is an issue that has been highlighted by everyone. What we would like to say is that a good resolution to this issue is debt retirement by the donor countries. At the moment, more than 50 per cent of Pakistan's economy is devoted to debt relief. Many other countries are facing a similar problem. If the donor nations agree to forgo the debt amount, then this money can be diverted to important national issues like education, health and the social upliftment of the developing countries who are now bearing the heavy burden of loan.

Kashmir

Pakistan is an economically deprived nation. Why is that? Because it is in an area of conflict. We need to improve the lot of the poor people in our nation. But because we are in an area of conflict, so development is a far cry. And what is this conflict? It is the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. This is the only dispute between India and Pakistan and it has been going on since 1948. There are no other disputes. All the other issues are merely irritants. We need to resolve this issue if there is to be peace in South Asia.

Democracy

I am a military man, while the world is concerned with democracy. But the world should be concerned with the essence of democracy and not just with the elections. What is more important is the behaviour of a person once he has been elected. That is real democracy and that has not been happening in Pakistan. I stand for real democracy.

The domestic scene in Pakistan

My priority is the revival of Pakistan's economy. Pakistan has suffered because of poor governance. This is what we are working on, because we need to be on a surer footing. We want to bring in a process that gives continuity and sustainability. We want to introduce a political structure that will follow up on the reforms that have been introduced.

It was only after this that General Musharraf took questions from the journalists assembled in Room 226 at the United Nations.

Do you see a world consensus on the Kashmir issue?

I see a change. There has been no talk of Kashmir in the UN for many years. But now I see a change in the people's attitude. Kashmir is now in focus. What the UN needs to do is develop the resolution to resolve it.

On the one hand, there was the Kargil debacle. On the other, you are importing sugar from India. How do you explain this dichotomy?

I don't know Kargil was a debacle for whom. I hope you mean it was a debacle for India. It is a battle between the freedom fighters of Kashmir and the Indian army. The Pakistan army has merely held on to the line of actual control.

As far as the sugar deal is concerned, there is no such deal with India as yet. But if it is in Pakistan's interest and in the interest of the common man, we will consider it. We will consider it if it benefits us.

What is your reaction to the Taliban?

The reality is that the Taliban control 90 per cent of Afghanistan. They need to be engaged in talks if this issue is to be resolved.

Is is true that the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is taking an initiative in attempting to bring about a reconciliation between India and Pakistan?

I have exchanged courtesies with the prime minister of Bangladesh. We were even seated together for lunch. I would welcome anyone's role in resolving the dispute between India and Pakistan. But any mediation has accept the fact that the dispute between India and Pakistan is Kashmir. This issue has to be resolved in order to reduce the tension in South Asia.

If you are in charge in Pakistan, why are ordinary people being harassed? Also, at one point, India did mention a plebiscite as a resolution to the Kashmir issue. Why did Pakistan not seize the initiative then?

I am in charge or I would not be here. There should be no doubt or illusion about that. If I was not in charge, I would not be here. I would like to know more about this plebiscite issue. Of course, we are most interested.

What kind of response have you received here from the heads of other countries?

I have received a very positive response. All the leaders I have met have understood the problems in Pakistan and the circumstances under which all this happened. I would have loved to be just a soldier and continue with my life and my squash and golf and tennis. But I am not a quitter. I am supportive of all reforms.

Why is there such a lack of religious freedom in Pakistan? Why are the minorities harassed, even though you are a dictator with the best interests of your nation at heart?

There is no nation in the world where extreme elements do not exist. But religious extremism does not exist in Pakistan. We are ensuring it in the grassroot levels. In the grassroot elections that we are going to have in Pakistan, there will be seats reserved for the minorities. Though one seat in 21 does not seem much, it gives them a five per cent representation. There are no atrocities committed in Pakistan. I think you should look across the border and at how the Muslims and the Christians are being treated over there.

When India announced the no first use nuclear option, there was no similar response from Pakistan. Yesterday, there seemed to be a change in your stand. Are you now against any kind of nuclear deterrent?

I am going a step further. I am offering a no war pact. I want South Asia to be a region without conflict. Remove the armed forces, dismantle the nuclear weapons. The ball is now in India's court. Let them come forward. We are against the use of force, let alone nuclear weapons.

Does that mean you are advocating disarmament?

It has to be proportionate. I am ready for any amount of reduction in arms. There should be a proportionate reduction of both convention and non-conventional arms. But India is allocating 28 per cent of its budget to defence!

Kashmir is a bilateral issue. At the same time, you say you would welcome any kind of mediation. Is this not a dichotomy?

There is no dichotomy. The main stake holders India and Pakistan have to talk. Any method can work. The bilateral methodology is the best if there is sincerity. But there has been no progress in that direction, so someone has to mediate.

Will you be meeting the Indian prime minister? Do you expect a UN solution to the Kashmir issue?

I have said that I am willing to meet Mr Vajpayee at any level, at any place, at any time. The ball is now in Mr Vajpayee's court. But there is no progress. The UN needs to show the will and the resolution to solve this problem. The East Timor issue was resolved in a year or two because the West took an interest. Now the same resolution should be shown in the Kashmir issue as well.

Do you see the army as part of the governing process in Pakistan? Would you consider a people-to-people peace initiative between the two countries?

The army is definitely a stabilising factor in Pakistan. I want to put in place a process that will ensure the continuity and stability of reforms. We need to introduce strong checks and balances that will protect the same. But I have not yet decided how and what. Yes, I do believe people to people is a method to follow. What happens sometimes is that facts get distorted and overstated. Facts and perceptions don't meet and I would blame the media for that. But I do believe that the people to people methodology is a very positive one.

What is your view on the Kashmir issue?

Overall, I believe that nothing has changed at the strategic level. The freedom struggle is going on and it is facing its ups and downs. The resolution depends on India, but the response from that end has been negative. They say that Pakistan is not involved. They talk of status quo and resolution within the Indian framework. How is that possible?

If elections were to be held in Pakistan, would you contest?

I would be a failure in politics. I am a soldier and I am happy to be one.

Are you disappointed with the American response or with President Clinton's visit?

I am not disappointed with the American response. President Clinton has been trying to initiate a dialogue between the two nations. I think he needs to be stronger and more proactive and more persuasive.

How is that?

(laughs) President Clinton knows his job very well. I don't have to tell him what he needs to do.

Do you think the Security Council needs to take a stronger stand?

It is the duty of the UN to resolve the long-standing issue it has faced. This issue has now dragged on for 52 years.

rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!

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