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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

The peace process: What's different?

January 19, 2004

Perhaps it was symbolic that at the Holiday Inn in Islamabad, the Indian media center for the SAARC summit was on the rooftop, while the Pakistani one was in the basement.

Despite well-meaning requests from both sides to avoid seeing the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad -- and the subsequent joint statement issued at the end of the summit -- through the 'winner and loser' prism, the fact remains that it was advantage India all the way.

In fact, as a senior Pakistan diplomat ruefully admitted, by waiting till the last minute before agreeing to the wording of the joint statement, for once India made "the general sweat."

The issue was one of time.

India had lots of it. Or at least, was good at pretending that it did.

Pakistan, or rather Musharraf, did not.

Hence Islamabad's frantic calls for a dialogue. Hence the willingness to make concession after concession despite the growing domestic perception -- across many sectors of society, included the educated classes -- that he was selling out the nation in general and Kashmir in particular. Hence the hurried legal mandate endorsing Musharraf as president, giving him a shroud of political acceptability, and his announcement that he would be hanging up his uniform at the end of the year.

The reasons for Musharraf's desperation are not hard to find. Though renowned for his ability to think at least four steps ahead of the opposition, the walls have been closing in on the general, and he was fast running out of time and space to maneuver.

Perhaps the first sign was when he went running to China in November, where he was politely 'advised' to negotiate and compromise with India in order to resolve the conflict plaguing the nation since Partition.

But the message must have been driven home to him starkly when deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein -- once an American poster boy -- was found in his hole by US Marines December 12:American support for the general's regime -- or any other, for that matter -- was not necessarily permanent.

Revelations that Pakistani technology and know-how was being used for covert nuclear programmes in Korea, Iran, Libya, and possibly other places added to Pakistani concerns.

India, on the other hand, despite Prime Minister Vajpayee's eagerness to restart the peace process, was content with waiting until most of its terms were met. Yes, Vajpayee would attend the South Asian summit, but no bilateral meetings had been planned with the Pakistani leaders. 'I am going for the SAARC summit,' Vajpayee declared on the day of his departure.

Of course, there was a lot of hectic backdoor diplomacy already in place. Indian sources claiming to be privy to these deliberations claim that India finally decided Musharraf was serious about terrorism, and hence worth talking to, after the two attempts on his life in December. But the real reasons are likely to be far more complicated and subtle.

Let us first see it from Musharraf's point of view.

Here is a man besieged both at home -- by elements across who think he has sold out to the Americans -- and abroad by Americans who want more. As more damning evidence keeps piling up each day linking Pakistan with terrorism and nuclear proliferation, he knew that despite his bluster about having nine lives, his time was running out.

And one -- and perhaps the only -- way to retain at least part of his rapidly dwindling authority and control was to ensure that India agreed to talk to him.

Asked at his press conference on the final day of the SAARC conference whether "friendship with India is part of your official doctrine," the general's response was "of course." What he didn't say was that he didn't have much choice.

Of course, the Indians have made concessions too. For one, talks have been planned in February, and even if there is a major terrorist attack in India before that, Indians are unlikely to rush to blame Musharraf personally for it. Which indirectly endorses both Musharraf's and the White House's repeated assertions that Musharraf does not have control over all the terrorist outfits in Pakistan.

Then, by admitting in the joint statement that Kashmir too would be part of the dialogue, India has finally conceded that it is a dispute, unlike the earlier position that it was an integral part of India and hence brooked no discussions.

Now consider the Indian compulsions.

Yes, it could afford to wait. But perhaps not as much as it wanted Musharraf to believe. The Indian economy was booming, the general mood in the country was optimistic. And the people generally endorsed the 'no talks before ending cross border' mantra that New Delhi kept repeating ad nauseum.

But besides the American and other pressure and Vajpayee's desire to get into the history books, India had other compulsions -- both economic and political -- to try and end its acrimonious relations with its neighbour.

For one, the squabble with Pakistan was holding up regional trade. The SAARC process was moribund, and though most nations had bilateral trade understandings, real intra-regional trade is still a joke.

In this case, India finally made it clear that it was going to pursue regional trade arrangements, with or without Pakistan. Next month, there will be BIMSTEC, or the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation summit in Phuket. This will be the first BIMSTEC summit since the group was formed in 1997, with earlier meetings have been at the ministerial level.

Then, more importantly, India's fervent attempts to become a major player on the world stage were often held hostage to this conflict. 'You guys can't even resolve Kashmir, and want to join us?' a senior diplomat from one of the P5 nations reportedly sneered at an Indian interlocutor making a case for India's candidature as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Two things make this particular attempt at peace with Pakistan different from the earlier unsuccessful attempts.

One, the step by step, incremental approach initiated by India and finally accepted by Pakistan. This ensures that ties in other areas of common interest, particularly trade and people to people contact, are finally delinked from the Kashmir issue.

And two, the shroud of secrecy which surrounded and will continue to surround the high level talks between the two sides. In other words, people will come to know about any developments only when both sides agree that it should be made public knowledge. This policy has now been extended to cover India's talks with China on the border as well.

Now this may sound like standard operating procedure for most touchy diplomatic dialogues, but unfortunately that has not been the case with India and Pakistan, who at times even used the media to issue statements to one another.

Here the government is taking a rather large gamble because despite the most stringent attempts at secrecy, there will be leaks. And sometimes speculation can cause far more damage than the truth.

Ramananda Sengupta

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Number of User Comments: 2

Sub: Peace process: What's different?

The report that has just been outlined more or less reitterates the long standing American zero sum position. When Bharat has improving relations with America ...

Posted by Mr Khandu Patel

Sub: Piece or Peace

Well Done... Well Said.... BUT Think positive, do your homework, and then analyse, before projecting your ideas to the world. I would like to add ...

Posted by S O Abbas



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