At first glance it seems that this round in the perpetual “who won, who lost” contest between India and Pakistan has gone to Pakistan, in general and to General Musharraf, in particular. After insisting for 18 months that there could be no dialogue with Pakistan unless Islamabad stopped aiding and abetting cross-border terrorism, the Indian government in a remarkable about-turn has invited Chief Executive Parvez Musharraf for talks in New Delhi.

The invitation has been interpreted in Pakistan and sections in India as a climb down for India and a diplomatic coup for the Musharraf regime. For, in July, New Delhi will be rolling out the red carpet for the very man it held responsible for the aggression at Kargil and the collapse of the Lahore Declaration.

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee invited Musharraf to visit India, “pick up the threads” of the stalled bilateral dialogue and “walk the high road … to peace and prosperity” in the subcontinent, the announcement was greeted with surprise for the suddenness with which the turnaround came. Media commentators are pointing out that the invitation is ill-timed, that it should have been extended a year ago when the advantage was in India’s favor.

A year ago, India was basking in the success of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to the country. Clinton’s statements on Kashmir, terrorism mediation, and the sanctity of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir were seen in New Delhi as an endorsement of India’s position.

It was a different story for Pakistan. In the doghouse for its role in initiating the Kargil conflict, its isolation internationally increased following the military coup. When the U.S. President visited Pakistan, he ticked it off for its “support (for) attacks against civilians across the LoC”.

“Had India initiated dialogue last year it could have talked from a position of strength. Today, much of that strength has been dissipated with the initiatives on Kashmir achieving nothing,” says an official in the India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

So what made India call for talks now? While pointing to the “conducive atmosphere” at the present time for talks, India’s foreign and defense minister Jaswant Singh avoided identifying what exactly had changed on the ground in India-Pakistan relations to produce this changed context. It is a fact that the LoC in Kashmir has been relatively quiet. Yet, there is nothing to indicate that Pakistan’s support to militants in Kashmir has stopped or even reduced.

It is possible that international pressure has pushed the two countries to the negotiating table. This might have played a bigger role with regard to Pakistan than with India. It appears that domestic compulsions were mainly responsible for prompting the two sides to the negotiating table.

For the Vajpayee government it has been the failure of its various initiatives on Kashmir that prompted it to start negotiations with Pakistan. New Delhi’s cease-fire initiative in the Kashmir Valley had reached a dead end with nothing achieved. With the K.C. Pant mission too making little headway, the government had run out of ideas. There was no option now but to talk to Pakistan.

But contrary to the widely held belief that the decision to invite Musharraf was sudden, there are enough pointers to the fact that a rethink of the approach was under consideration from December-January itself. That a shift was on the cards became clear in February when India agreed to SAARC holding a secretary level meeting.

Analysts in Pakistan see the invitation for the talks as a major diplomatic triumph for Musharraf. While he has visited at least 10 countries in recent months, the trip to India will be a major feather in his cap. He is anxious to pull his country out of the current economic mess and will not be able to do so without impressing the donors that he is capable of “good behavior.”

While the first week following Vajpayee’s invitation and Musharraf’s acceptance saw analysts examining the motives of the two sides in coming to the table, the focus of debate now has shifted to the talks. Given the sharp differences that exist between the two countries on Kashmir, is any negotiation possible? What are the two sides going to discuss?

In the months prior to the signing of the Lahore Declaration, India and Pakistan had talked about how future talks should proceed. Pakistan argued that the Kashmir issue should be discussed first and only then other issues such as nuclear risk reduction and economic co-operation. India insisted that all issues including Kashmir be discussed.

The Lahore Declaration saw the two sides reach a compromise. Pakistan agreed to a composite dialogue and India agreed to a separate working group for Kashmir. But the Declaration was in trouble within a few months when the Kargil conflict broke out. It was subsequently trashed when Musharraf rejected it outright following the coup.

Few expect anything dramatic to happen at the New Delhi summit. A Western diplomat based in New Delhi told this writer that no declaration or agreement was expected to be signed at the July summit. “The summit is an opportunity for them to meet and see if they can work with each other. The summit can be treated as a success if the two sides come out of the room and say they can work together,” he says.

Cautioning against pinning high expectations on the forthcoming summit, Professor S.D. Muni of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, points out that “the summit can neither resolve the tangled Kashmir issue nor establish a viable process of multifaceted cooperation between India and Pakistan in one go. All that the summit can do is to pick up the broken threads of this process and lay the ground rules for sustained constructive engagement.”

In an article published in the Pakistani daily Dawn, political commetator Ayaz Amir rules out the possibility of any miracles at the summit. “But both countries will have registered a major advance if they can learn the art of conversing with each other without making a sticking-point of every quibble or comma,” he says.

“The two sides will agree to talk about the eight subjects identified earlier under the Lahore Declaration, says Smruti Pattanaik, analyst at the New Delhi based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “At the summit they will restate their positions on Kashmir and announce talks that will be continued at the foreign secretary level,” she says. Essentially, this will mean they will go back to the Lahore Declaration.

But it will have to be the Lahore Declaration with some cosmetic changes. The MEA is saying that the composite dialogue framework will be revived. “Perhaps we will find a new name for it so that General Musharraf (who denounced the Lahore Declaration completely) can accept it without too much of a loss of face,” says the MEA official.

Indeed what is likely to happen is that the two sides will engage in talks about talks. This is not such a bad idea if a mechanism can be put in place making it mandatory for the two sides to meet at regular intervals, whatever the state of relations.

In an article published in the New Indian Express, Mani Shankar Aiyer draws attention to the persistence with which Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho engaged in dialogue from 1968 to 1973 even as their countries were engaged in the worst military hostilities. He suggests that India and Pakistan should engage in “uninterrupted and interruptible dialog.” Stressing that this requires political will he says, “To foster that will should be the objective of any India-Pakistan summit.”

While people in the subcontinent are not expecting much out of the summit itself, there is, nonetheless, a hope that the leadership in the two countries will in the coming months reach agreement on some issue, like nuclear risk reduction, for instance.

There is a feeling in India that while dealing with a government that is not democratically elected might not be the correct thing to do, a deal that will last can be struck only with a military regime in Pakistan. After all, the successful Indus Water Treaty and the Agreement on Non-attack on Nuclear Installations which have been observed to date were signed between India and General Ayub and General Zia, respectively. According to this logic, a deal on Kashmir will be possible only with General Musharraf.

However, the domestic and international situation confronting Musharraf today is far worse than that which General Ayub or General Zia had to deal with. Musharraf does not have the kind of backing from the U.S. that the other two had. The economy is in a shambles. Above all, he has the jihadi groups to deal with and his control over them is declining.

While expectations in Pakistan with regard to the summit might be low, Musharraf will find himself in deep waters if he goes back with nothing in his bag. As Farah Zahra, a journalist based in Islamabad points out, it will not be enough if the two sides come out and say the atmosphere was cordial, the talks fruitful and announce that they have agreed to continue talks. “Some headway, which both sides look upon as headway, has to be achieved on the Kashmir issue,” she says.

For months now Musharraf has said that he is willing to meet the Indian Prime Minister “any time, any place” to talk about resolving the Kashmir conflict. Now India has invited him.

Even as India has given his military regime a degree of legitimacy by inviting him for negotiations, it has also put him in a tight spot. Musharraf will now have to appear a reasonable and flexible leader if he wants the international support he so desperately needs. He has started making the right noises. But a compromising approach with India will spell trouble for him at home. His political opposition and the jihadis will accuse him of selling out.

He will have to walk the tight rope. This round might have gone to Musharraf. But will the entire match go to him?

Sudha Ramachandran is an analyst/writer based in Bangalore, India.

 

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