May 31, 2001


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Brahma Chellaney

Supping with a rogue general

Seeking to revive his sagging political fortunes at home, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has fashioned a dramatic event in foreign policy by reversing the course on Pakistan and opening dialogue at the highest level with its military junta.

In doing so, India's interests appear to have been made subservient to personal and party interests. New Delhi is now fixatedly waiting to sup with the mastermind of Kargil who, in the first place, it should have put on trial in absentia as a war criminal.

The BJP's dismal, unprincipled record in power indicates it is on the path of self-destruction. In being so, its ageing leadership is in danger of unwittingly dragging the country down with it.

In inviting Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf to New Delhi for talks while simultaneously announcing the end of his six-month-old cease-fire in Kashmir, Vajpayee has sought to present India both as tough and conciliatory.

The problem, however, is that Pakistan portrays the dual initiative in exactly the opposite light -- as an ignominious backdown by India under international pressure and an acceptance of what Musharraf calls the "ground realities" in Kashmir.

To the Pakistani military establishment, this dual initiative is proof of India's exhaustion from battling the 'jihad' in Jammu and Kashmir. In other words, Islamabad has just to sustain its 'war of a thousand cuts' before it compels a bleeding India to accept a Kashmir settlement on Pakistani terms.

Vajpayee's call to the rogue general to walk the "high road with us" insults the memory of more than 500 brave Indian soldiers and officers who laid down their lives evicting the Pakistani invaders. Instead of holding Musharraf accountable for the loss of so many precious Indian lives, Vajpayee has extended "a most cordial invitation" to this criminal general and his begum to visit New Delhi "at your early convenience".

How does this general respond to Vajpayee's invitation? Most sardonically. In his reply, Musharraf tells his soon-to-be host: "We wish to see a stable and prosperous India at peace with its neighbours." In other words, the onus is on culpable India to learn to live in peace with guiltless Pakistan and other neighbours.

This reference is a jibe at Vajpayee's invitation reiterating his statement made at Minar-e-Pakistan in February 1998 that "a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India's interest. That remains our conviction."

Musharraf then pours further disdain. Referring to Vajpayee's letter singling out Jammu & Kashmir by name as an "outstanding" issue to be discussed, the general told BBC: "I really appreciate Prime Minister Vajpayee for his statesmanship, his vision and his courage and boldness in accepting reality, and to address an issue that has bedevilled relations between our two countries."

This statement echoes the views of his foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, who has publicly crowed that India climbed down "due to pressure" from the world community. Sattar has claimed "singular success" in making New Delhi "unconditionally accept" talks with Pakistan.

The contrast between Vajpayee's letter and Musharraf's response could not have been starker. Vajpayee's invitation shies away from mentioning India's core concern over cross-border terrorism even in passing. Instead it emulates the Lahore Declaration and names Pakistan's core issue, J&K.

Musharraf's letter not only puts the obligation on India to take appropriate steps to be "at peace with its neighbours", it also states Pakistan's case frontally: "The root cause of tension between our two countries is the unresolved Jammu and Kashmir dispute. I, therefore, look forward to a sincere and candid discussion with you to resolve the issue of Jammu & Kashmir in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people." Yet, Vajpayee has said he is "satisfied" with Musharraf's reply.

Vajpayee's letter is a disturbing reminder that India has come to accept Pakistan's portrayal of J&K as an Indo-Pak "outstanding" dispute. Not only is this in contradiction to New Delhi's stand that J&K is an integral part of India and there can be no negotiations on its future, it also puts the spotlight on the part held by India, ignoring Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China-occupied Kashmir.

Vajpayee's references since Lahore have been to "Jammu & Kashmir", which is the name of the Indian-controlled part. He has never sought to put the record straight by clarifying that he is referring to the original state of J&K as it existed in 1947 and of which India now holds only 45 per cent, with Pakistan occupying 35 per cent and China 20 per cent.

Further, by agreeing to do business with the general responsible for the deaths of Indian soldiers, including the mutilation-killings of six, Vajpayee has shown that he has already put Kargil behind him. How callously the government can forget the killing of Indian troops was shown recently when Vajpayee, in belated comments, said that "a mountain was made out of a molehill" when Bangladeshis coldbloodedly murdered 16 BSF soldiers. Sadly, those in power understand neither the popular mood nor the demands of statecraft.

Vajpayee indeed has drawn no lesson from Kargil -- or from Lahore. He is all set to repeat history by restarting the Lahore process with the general who detests the Lahore Declaration and the Simla Agreement and who is committed to pursuing a low-intensity war ceaselessly until victory is Pakistan's.

Through the Kargil invasion, Musharraf and his military handed India an opportunity to settle, once and for all, the Kashmir issue. A faltering Vajpayee, however, needed Washington's diplomatic help to get the invaders out.

The last three years are testament to Kashmir being an unending story of blunders under Vajpayee -- all in the name of peace, and all undermining India's hold over the valley. Thanks to the ill-conceived cease-fire from last November, the army is at the receiving end in Kashmir for the first time.

Instead of India filing a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice for Kargil war compensation from Pakistan, it was Islamabad that hauled India before the World Court for subsequently shooting down a Pakistani reconnaissance plane. The fact that Pakistan shot down two Indian fighter jets and one helicopter gunship, caused hundreds of Indian fatalities and triggered billions of dollars of losses on the Indian stock market seemed to be no consequence to New Delhi. India frittered away an opportunity to establish a healthy norm in international relations whereby the victim-state hauls the aggressor before the World Court.

Now, Vajpayee is busy creating inflated expectations over the outcome of his summit meeting with Musharraf. In one stroke, Vajpayee has distracted the country from his political problems, including growing fissures within the governing coalition. The media -- and the country -- are fixated on the upcoming summit meeting. To deal with one shock -- the Tehelka bribery expose -- Vajpayee has administered another shock to the country through his U-turn on the Pakistan policy.

The history of India-Pakistan summit meetings is a chronicle of pious declarations followed by intensified conflict. In 1989, the bonhomie that marked the meeting of the youthful Indian and Pakistan prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, raised hopes that these two leaders born after the 1947 Partition of India would bring peace to the subcontinent.

But soon thereafter Bhutto turned anti-India under military pressure and bilateral relations reached a new low by 1990 following a bloody resurgence of separatist violence in Kashmir. The 1998 summit between Vajpayee and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief was followed by Kargil.

Given that history, what can the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit meeting achieve? In theory, the setting for the talks is not bad, as the Pakistani military and the BJP are in power in Islamabad and New Delhi, respectively, and only they can sell a peace deal to their countries. While Vajpayee has failed to arrest Kashmiri violence, the Pakistani military is chastened from both its Kargil experience and its difficulty in managing a bankrupt economy.

In reality, however, neither Musharraf nor Vajpayee has the political room for reaching any bold compromise. Musharraf is the weakest military dictator Pakistan has had. Forced to constantly look behind his shoulders at the other generals in his junta, his hold on power remains tenuous.

The India-born Musharraf is an outsider in an army made up mostly of Punjabis and Pathans. Moreover, he did not stage the coup himself, but was put on the throne by the coup executors. In India, Vajpayee is politically weak and wounded.

Against this background, the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit meeting will be an occasion for mutual public posturing and atmosphere building. But it will yield little in terms of substance.

Let us hope that unlike the 1989 and 1998 summits, the Vajpayee-Musharraf talks will not be followed by open conflict from Pakistan's side. As for Vajpayee, he will be remembered in history for the manner his meandering policy on Pakistan harmed India's interests.

Brahma Chellaney

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