July 17, 2001


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Kanchan Gupta

Musharraf went for broke, and lost in Agra

The Great Agra Bash is over: General Pervez Musharraf has gone back to his self-appointed job as chief executive-cum-president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has returned to his elected job at South Block in New Delhi.

The nearly 700 mediapersons who had gathered in Agra over the weekend in the fond hope that their bylines would get tagged to epoch-making news have started dispersing for wherever they came from, with feelings ranging from outrage to disappointment. Outrage at having been made to hang around till the wee hours of Tuesday morning in the sweltering heat of Agra only to be told they should gather for a full briefing later the next morning.
Disappointment over the fact that they had missed the chance to tag their bylines to a story that would be more than a footnote in the history of India-Pakistan relations.

It is amazing how the media expected the main players at the Agra summit to play to the gallery and bare their innermost thoughts to the world at large even before placing them across the negotiating table -- or whatever that Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Musharraf were sitting across. This expectation was in large part whetted by the Pakistani delegation's constant interaction with the media, not least by General Musharraf's breakfast interaction with senior Indian journalists that was supposed to be an off-the-record discussion but was telecast live.

Indeed, those looking for signs of Pakistani trickery found evidence of it in the sly manner in which the Pakistanis convinced their hosts to let them go ahead with the breakfast interaction by promising to keep it off the record, but made full use of the occasion for General Musharraf to address the world at large. In sharp contrast to the garrulous Pakistanis -- the general included -- the Indians -- including the prime minister -- were tight-lipped and reticent.

Given the media's sense of self-importance and overwhelming self-interest, it is, therefore, not surprising that even before the first serious analysis of the Agra summit could be articulated, it had been written off as a 'PR disaster' for India and a 'PR victory' for Pakistan. Pity that barring a few sane editors, the media contingent gathered at Agra should have chosen to view the summit purely through the prism of the number of stories generated - or, to put it the other way round, the number of stories that were never generated.

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh made two points in his briefing on Tuesday morning that, in a sense, sum up the outcome of the Agra summit. First, his repeated emphasis on the word 'disappointment.' Asked to elaborate, he said he meant exactly what the word means. This disappointment is not necessarily 'unifocal' and over the apparent failure to hammer out an 'Agra Declaration' a la the 'Lahore Declaration' that was very much on the cards till late Monday night. This disappointment has a larger contextual application.

The brazen display of belligerence (some would say cockiness) by General Musharraf at the breakfast interaction with senior journalists, through which he sought to amplify the ambit of one-on-one dialogue, which was supposed to be the cornerstone of the weekend summit, is something that is alien to Prime Minister Vajpayee's style. It can be said with a degree with certitude that the general's utterances -- if not the fact that an off-the-record breakfast meeting was slyly transformed into a live, real time television event -- rankled with the prime minister, and rankled deeply.

The subsequent release of the prime minister's opening remarks at the delegation-level talks, which are never made public, need to be seen in this context. But here, too, the prime minister drove home the point that issues raised by the general on a public platform were for the moment supposed to have been the subject matter of talks between the two by not releasing the details of what he told his guest at the one-on-one meetings. Implicit in Prime Minister Vajpayee's action was a primary lesson in diplomacy for General Musharraf.

In short, Prime Minister Vajpayee insisted on playing the game by the rules; General Musharraf chose to break the rules of the game. It is entirely possible that General Musharraf did so due to lack of tutelage in the high art of diplomacy. But that could at best be described as a charitable explanation. A more realistic explanation would be the general knew the fallout and impact of his public utterances even while the summit was on, and that this is precisely what he was aiming for: creating a spoiler that would ultimately prove to be the stumbling block.

This is not to suggest that the much-expected 'Agra Declaration' did not come about or the summit failed to produce any tangible results only because General Musharraf ordered the cameras on while breaking bread with senior Indian journalists on Monday morning. On the other hand, it would not be out of place to suggest that the general used the breakfast meeting to throw a spanner into the works and thus harden the stand of his hosts. In other words, the general never wanted a breakthrough -- at least not yet -- in improving India-Pakistan relations.

A clever strategist, General Musharraf accepted Prime Minister Vajpayee's invitation; not accepting it would have amounted to letting India seize the moral high ground. An equally clever tactician, he decided to use the opportunity to both legitimise his otherwise illegitimate occupation of political office as well as hardsell Pakistan's Kashmir policy as never before.

Other prime ministers and military rulers of Pakistan may have spoken passionately of Islamabad's rights over Srinagar, but for General Musharraf, it is more than mere passion - it is an article of faith. Recall the scorn that steeped the words he spat out at the breakfast interaction: 'If India expects that I should ignore Kashmir, I better buy back the Neherwali Haveli.'

Let us not forget that neither he nor his parents were born in what we today know as Pakistan. They opted for Pakistan because they rejected the idea of India. That rejection runs deep in the general's psyche, notwithstanding his sweet nothings over the 'beauty in symmetry' of the Taj Mahal.

Hence, General Musharraf's repeated assertion that solving the Kashmir issue has to be accorded primary importance, the rest can follow. For him, it is Kashmir or nothing: He went for broke, and, of course lost, at least in Agra. His insistence on painting in black and white the complex problems plaguing India-Pakistan relations may have endeared him to hardliners in Pakistan, but has left practitioners of diplomacy aghast: In diplomacy, it is the shades of grey in between that matter.

The second point made by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh came in the form of his response to a question, posed by an astoundingly impertinent journalist, as to why the general was 'not allowed' to visit the dargah of Ajmer Sharif and made to cool his heels in his hotel suite. After denying any such thing, Mr Singh added it is not sufficient that one should desire to visit the dargah: one visits the dargah 'Jab garib nawaz ka hukum hoga.' The point needs no further elaboration.

Irrespective of an overt attempt -- an attempt in which, surprisingly, both hardliners and liberals across the Radcliffe Line are united -- to write off the Agra summit as a wasted opportunity, it is necessary to stress that the meeting has yielded more than one positive development. The very fact that the Government of India is talking with the current regime in Pakistan is by itself a big step forward: Re-engagement after Kargil is no mean achievement.

It is equally gainful for India that Pakistan has come across to the world at large as not only a cussed country obsessed with a single-point agenda, but also a country with whom doing business is not an easy task. No less important is it to underscore General Musharraf's use of the word 'partners' in the context of India and Pakistan and his description of India as the bigger partner. To minimise these positives and to extraordinarily highlight the negatives would be tantamount to questioning the utility of the dialogue process that often follows a tortuous path.

That is precisely what the jehadi groups will be doing in the coming days. Spewing venom, they will seek to prove that violence can achieve what the Agra summit has failed to deliver. It is entirely possible that the regime in Islamabad will not be averse to upping the ante in Kashmir with the help of the jehadi groups, especially the Lashkar-e-Tayeba. After all, what better way to demonstrate Pakistan's leverage in Jammu and Kashmir than by slaughtering some more people?

General Musharraf has already offered us a rationale for the jehadi killings: It happens all the time, look at what is happening in Palestine.

India has to face this fresh assault 'resolutely,' if Prime Minister Vajpayee wants to demonstrate both at home and abroad that in her search for a lasting peace in the sub-continent, India is not lacking in 'resolve, strength or stamina to continue resisting terrorism and violence.'

Meanwhile, General Musharraf would do well to ponder over what Haroon Rashid, who heads The Dawn group of publications, had to tell a television reporter: 'The problem of jehadis is far more serious for Pakistan... for its destiny.'

And Prime Minister Vajpayee should perhaps refrain from maudlin references to sub-continental poverty, hunger and deprivation while penning his next letter to General Musharraf. Social development, empowerment of the masses and eradication of hunger make for good conversation over tikka and Scotch in South Delhi and Clifton. But they hardly matter when it comes to realpolitik between countries.

Kanchan Gupta, till recently officer on special duty to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, returns to with this column.

Kanchan Gupta

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