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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt

May 07, 2003

On May 2, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee received a thumping ovation in Parliament when he gave an emotional speech ending 17 months of bitterness and paving the way for the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan.

While the politician in Vajpayee admitted that the relationship between the two countries was shrouded in darkness, the poet in him asked, "Who has said a lamp cannot be lit?"

A reality check unveils a different story.

Reducing the nuclear risk

According to a military expert and strategy analyst, "Vajpayee's Srinagar speech on April 18 -- where he said, 'We are still willing to extend the hand of friendship, but it must be reciprocated in good measure by Pakistan' -- was the need of the hour. But one can't be optimistic till the ground reality changes. Till then, nothing will bring peace to the borders [between the countries], even though we tried to seek this peace vigorously in Lahore and Agra."

He emphasised, "This time, the aim seems to be to reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation between the two countries. The world is worried about the nuclear risk between India and Pakistan; they are not worried about Kashmir. This is a pre-emptive initiative to sidestep the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who says he is 'frightened' by the so-called tension between India and Pakistan."

Former ambassador to America Naresh Chandra says, "America has an alarmist view on the situation. Their perception of the nuclear risk is bit exaggerated. They are reassured about us, but are not sure about the other side."

According to a source in New Delhi, experts from both countries will meet soon in London as a part of the Track-2 (non-governmental) diplomacy. Their talks will focus on reducing the nuclear risk in the subcontinent.

The Lahore Agreement of February 1999 had recognised that "the nuclear dimension of the security environment of the two countries adds to their responsibility for avoidance of conflict between the two countries".

In Lahore, as part of the confidence-building measures, a memorandum of understanding was signed by then Indian foreign secretary K Raghunath and then Pakistani foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad to engage "in bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines" and to provide each other with advance notification about ballistic missile tests.

Both sides had also agreed to engage in bilateral consultations on security, disarmament and non-proliferation. But before any meeting could actually take place, Kargil happened, vitiating the security environment, and destroying any sense of confidence between the two countries.

Now, thanks to Vajpayee, the aborted initiative of 1999 can be revived.

Jamali's tryst with destiny

Talking to rediff.com, most experts pointed out that there are no solid signals from both sides of the border to suggest that the "50-year-old bloody game", as Vajpayee termed the enmity between the two countries, will end anytime soon.

Sushant Sareen, director, Centre of Pakistan Studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, says, "If talks between Vajpayee and [Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan] Jamali take place, they will be more cordial, more relaxed, and more informal than the Vajpayee-[Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf talks. Beyond that, Jamali can't do anything. He has no authority. He will have to say what Musharraf wants him to say. Musharraf will lay out the brief for the talks."

B Raman, Pakistan expert and rediff.com columnist, thinks some kind of strategy is already in place. "It is apparent from the manner [in which] Jamali is flooding Vajpayee with phone calls, letters, statements, etc. Musharraf, through Jamali, is trying to hustle Vajpayee into a premature political summit as he did in Agra. Vajpayee should not fall into the trap."

Many observers in Delhi wonder if it is a kind of comedown for Vajpayee to talk to Jamali.

Islamabad-based journalist Hamid Mir says, "Jamali is not the issue. The people of Pakistan want Vajpayee to talk to Jamali and not to Musharraf. Here, many people think the Jamali-Vajpayee talks will not reach the deadlock the Musharraf-Vajpayee talks did. Remember, Jamali is far more flexible than Musharraf and, after all, he is an elected member."

Even members of parliament from Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party recently suggested, 'To free Pakistan's politics from the clutches of military, let us befriend India.'

Mir believes that if peace talks do materialise between Jamali and Vajpayee, it will be up to the former to turn them into an opportunity.

Jamali has a few strengths to his credit -- he is Pakistan's first Baloch prime minister and is backed by the politically powerful Punjabis. Two of his sons are in the army and he shares power with the mullah-backed fundamentalist parties at the provincial level.

On the negative side, he lacks Musharraf's stature. Besides, he is considered the general's stooge and a puppet whose strings are in the hands of the Punjabi leaders of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, Quaid-e-Azam.

But talks with Vajpayee may give him the political space to manoeuvre out of his unenviable corner. Mir claims, "If the peace initiative grows, Jamali might get his own voice. Currently, politics in Pakistan revolves around Musharraf. The opposition parties want a deadline by which Musharraf will resign from one of his posts [he is currently Pakistan's army chief and its president]."

Raman says, "Jamali is considered close to America. That was one of the reasons he was selected by President Musharraf." Raman adds that he is against summit-level talks between the two prime ministers in the near future.

Chandra, who agrees with Raman, says, "I don't think the issue of prime ministerial-level talks is settled yet. Who talks to whom and the structure of the peace process is yet to be decided. If and when Vajpayee enters into summit-level talks, he will probably talk to Musharraf."

Media Hype

Most experts are vehemently advising the government against media hype in this latest Indo-Pak peace initiative.

Says Chandra, "I think Vajpayee has taken a great initiative. Despite provocation, he has shown tolerance. But now he must tread cautiously. We won't have sudden spectacular growth in the Indo-Pak relationship and, for that reason, media hype should be avoided."

Raman is more aggressive, "The Americans have done a study on why [the] Agra [summit between India and Pakistan] failed. Media hype can turn such talks into a political fiasco. The Bharatiya Janata Party's penchant for hype and publicity is known, but it should restrain itself this time."

Sareen believes nothing has changed since the much-hyped Agra summit. He asks, "Has India relinquished Jammu and Kashmir, which it claims as an integral part of the nation? No. Has Pakistan stopped sponsoring terrorism? No. Has it rethought its policy on Kashmir? No. In that case, what is the proposed dialogue [between India and Pakistan] going to achieve?"

Raman says, "I don't expect a major breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations. It [this initiative] is not backed by a well-thought-out strategy. There is a need to make a comprehensive statement to the nation about what we will talk [about] and what we will not. Instead, we are giving the impression that we are desperate to talk."

Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon, a nuclear analyst, is rather pessimistic about Vajpayee's latest initiative. "I think the talks between the two prime ministers [will be] worthless," he says. "It will yield nothing if we don't do our homework well. The Tashkent, Shimla and Lahore declarations read like the Bible or the [Bhagvad] Gita. They sound like two quarrelling brothers promising to behave before their mother. It does not read like an international agreement. It's idealistic rubbish. The ministry of external affairs does not know how to conduct international talks."

Menon adds, "Any serious agreement between the two countries will take two to three years."

Most observers feel the talks can't start at the prime ministerial level. 'Step by step' talks are the only way because, as Vajpayee says, 'It is a nazuk masla [delicate issue].'

"The agreement between the US and the USSR, for the hotline that was set up between the two countries, runs into more pages than the Lahore Declaration," says Menon. International agreements materialise only after experts meet for two to three years. It is only after they hammer out the issues that the politicians step in. It is a long and torturous process."

He gives the example of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, which has stood the test of time because it was drafted by professional lawyers, appointed and monitored by the World Bank.

If the relationship between India and Pakistan has to be strengthened, there is a need for a professional diplomatic approach from both countries and a need to de-link contentious issues from the bilateral talks.

But Chandra says, "People must not show too many apprehensions. India should continue to monitor the situation on the ground and along the LoC. Human elements are involved here. The issue will pick up its own momentum. Despite the world's best resources at its disposal, the Northern Ireland issue is not yet resolved. It will take a long time to remove the mistrust and suspicion between India and Pakistan. A very long time."

Image: Dominic Xavier

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