July 26, 2001


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T V R Shenoy

Banda yeh bindaas hai

A spectre is haunting the foreign office -- the spectre of Ashfaq Ahmad Gondal. Pakistan's pointman on the media front, Gondal ran rings around Nirupama Rao, spokeswoman for the Indian foreign office. That is not surprising -- Gondal is a veteran, having spent three years in India, while Ms Rao is a novice with just three months on the job.

I cannot understand why the Indian establishment threw a relatively junior officer into the den to satisfy the media wolves when Pakistan led from the front, with Pervez Musharraf merrily providing juicy morsels whenever required. As a result General Musharraf was allowed to dominate the reports, if not the summit itself. Kashmir, and Kashmir alone, was its monomaniacal tone.

I can understand the bureaucrats being out of the loop. Yet, surprisingly, even our external affairs minister could not breast the tide of Pakistan's propaganda. And the Indian prime minister kept quiet most of the time, even as President Musharraf claimed "90 per cent of the one-to-one talks were taken up by discussions about Kashmir."

Briefing his Cabinet colleagues in Delhi, Jaswant Singh clarified this as the courtesy of a host; the Pakistani president, the minister said, mistook silence for consent. Pardon me, but this is based on a false premise.

It is true the prime minister courteously gave President Musharraf his due. Yet it is an absolute canard to say Prime Minister Vajpayee kept "a monumental silence" (to quote a Pakistani description). I am reliably informed Atal Behari Vajpayee rebutted General Musharraf point for point whenever required. There was no need for Jaswant Singh to explain away something that never happened.

General Musharraf could have had no illusions about India's position after his talks with the prime minister. Sadly, India's mismanagement meant Gondal succeeded in doing a wonderful job as puppet-master with the media.

I am not concerned about the fallout on Indian public opinion. President Musharraf's overkill has resulted in a backlash within India. It has forced even the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid -- surely no friend of the BJP! -- to repeat that Kashmir is inalienable from India.

But the effect on global opinion is worrying. Neither India nor Pakistan made headlines as a rule -- about as much as, say, a summit between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Things changed in the wake of Pokharan-II. The world, particularly the United States, wants to know what India and Pakistan proposed vis-a-vis arms control. But all anyone heard was sabre-rattling on Kashmir -- precisely what Pakistan desired.

At his press conference in Islamabad, President Musharraf piously described India and Pakistan as mature nations who did not require the intervention of a third party. Given Pakistan's past stridency in demanding mediation, this is rather like an arsonist lecturing on fire-safety! The United States was quick to respond, with Secretary of State Colin Powell gratuitously offering his services. In light of America's success in making Israel come to terms with the Palestinians, I am not sure what he hopes to achieve in the subcontinent. Besides, the one thing worse than to be seen as giving in to Pakistan is to be perceived as yielding ground under American pressure...

How realistic is the possibility of American intervention? During his presidential campaign, President Bush described India as a potential great power, stressing the need for co-operation between the two biggest democracies in the world. Yet military and diplomatic establishments in Washington continue to see India as a potential troublemaker.

While Colin Powell made the news, certain remarks by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were ignored by the Indian media. He reportedly accused Russia of selling weapons to "countries like Iran, North Korea and India... which are threatening the United States and Europe." Is he really classifying democratic India in the same category as North Korea? I hope the Indian foreign office takes up the issue with its American counterpart.

Secretary Rumsfeld's gaffe -- if that is all it was -- apart, it must be clarified to Secretary Powell that American mediation is a complete non-starter. Of course, many people are honestly concerned about South Asia being a nuclear flashpoint. The best way to assuage their concerns, while simultaneously avoiding their irritating remarks, is to do something about it ourselves.

India took the high ground by inviting General Musharraf to a conference. I wish it had simultaneously trumpeted the fact that arms control was a priority on its agenda. It was one, of course, but the fact didn't become clear because Pakistan led the media by the nose. What would have happened had India made arms control a matter of public debate? Could General Musharraf have faced the world, saying that nothing could be resolved without a final solution to Kashmir?

Nobody in Pakistan was under any illusion that the prime minister could settle the Kashmir dispute. They know only Parliament has the authority to stamp any deal. But India's ill-chosen inertia gave Pervez Musharraf all he expected from Agra -- the opportunity to put Kashmir back on the world stage.

Frankly, the only time India went on the front foot was when Sushma Swaraj spoke with the media. Sadly, instead of backing her up when she pointed out Kashmir wasn't the sole topic on the agenda, the Indian establishment fell in meekly with Pakistan's protests. Maybe it was just as well. This pusillanimity led Pakistan to believe that it could rewrite history, including the Simla Accord. This was too much to swallow and there was, thank God, no joint statement on Pakistan's terms.

Don't get me wrong; I am no hawk, and hope the prime minister is able to take the dialogue forward when he goes to Pakistan. But can't the foreign office be as effective with the media as the prime minister was with Pervez Musharraf? Democracies are supposed to be good at communicating; at Agra, India was clearly outclassed by a dictator's regime.

T V R Shenoy

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