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June 6, 2001
That treacherous road to peace
Prime Minister A B Vajpayee knows better than most of us that the path to peace -- the high road to peace, as he said in his missive to Pakistan’s chief executive -- is more treacherous than Mumbai’s roads in the monsoon. If he has consented to take this perilous passage despite such knowledge, it is obvious that his calculations go deeper than what is being believed in most circles.
For one, it was the nudge from the US that pushed the Indian government on the road to a dialogue, after holding out the pet line that there could be no talks with a military ruler who was not elected by the people. Of course, Washington had a role to play in this sudden change of heart, a change of heart so fundamental in the nation’s policy that can be likened perhaps to the socialist nation embracing economic laissez faire in 1991.
It is obvious that both America and India are moving closer than they have ever been in the past. India’s interest is economic, while the sole superpower’s intention is to reduce the shadow of conflict in the subcontinent. A little bit of give and take is what international relations are about, diplomacy serving to hide the gives and enhance the takes. Republican Washington’s pound of flesh are talks.
For another, that the talks are doomed to failure, since the two sides have adopted irreconcilable positions on Kashmir. How does one bridge the gap between what Pakistan seeks -- secession of Kashmir -- and what India is prepared to discuss, which is that the entire state and not just the rump that is, belongs to it?
On the face of it, of course, there cannot be any compromise between the two extreme positions. Regardless of what the people on both sides of the border may seek, what strengthens the chance of peace, in my opinion, is that this time round New Delhi is not dealing with a civilian puppet in Islamabad who dances to the army’s tune, but the face of the military, which alone, since Pakistan’s disseveration from India, is the arbiter of that nation’s course. If anyone can guarantee a step forward that won’t slide back 30 within a month -- it is only Pakistan’s men in khaki -- which is why the ensuing talks are not merely historical, but also crucial.
Reviled in India as the architect of the Kargil war, General Pervez Musharraf may not find many a sympathetic audience here. But the fact remains that more than Nawaz Sharief, more than Benazir Bhutto or even her father -- all democratically elected chiefs in their time -- it is the general who has the ability, even if it is nominal, to deliver peace in the region.
The moot point, of course, is if he will. And if so, why.
If India has agreed to abandon its stated policy of not dealing with a dictator in order to impress the men on Capitol Hill, at the risk of repetition, Pakistan’s need for an American nod is even more dire. It was American aid that kept the nation going, and with the flow slowing to a trickle its future is at stake. Overt support to Bin Laden and his likes is not the only reason why, it also has to do with the related issue of spreading jehad in Kashmir and elsewhere. The one way open to Islamabad to show its bona fides is to be seen as a nation desirous of peace in the region, not an agent provocateur.
America has been pushing both the nations to the table, and it is India, stung by the response to its Lahore overture, that has stayed away. Ever since assuming power in that country, the general has spoken of his urge for peace, which at one time seemed as incongruous as Al Capone emulating the Mahatma. For Vajpayee to suddenly agree to talks, there has to be more than the sight of the receding Nobel to spur this course of action.
Domestic discord in the wake of a disastrous performance in the state assembly polls? Possibly, but not entirely. After months of political bleeding, perhaps it was time to shift the focus elsewhere, and where better than overseas? While a valid argument, it still does not explain the manoeuvre completely. If it was a mere diversion, it should have been resorted to the day tehelka.com went public with its investigation.
By walking the high road to peace, the Vajpayee government would like to make sure that it is redeemed in the world’s eyes by talking to a man whose non-civilian status will not get him a state reception in a few capitals. After the talks India and Pakistan may agree to disagree further, but here is the nub for General Musharraf. The stakes are considerably higher for his nation than they are for India. And it is he that will have to do most of the walking, while his interlocutor does the talking.
Such is the extent of popular disenchantment at the violence, that even the most basic solution discussed -- converting the LoC into the international border between the two nations -- would be seen as a breakthrough, despite violating the Indian Parliament’s resolution calling for the restoration of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir to India.
And if the two sides do walk away from the table as ‘friends,’ Indians can expect to vote in another general election by the end of this year.
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