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June 22, 2001
T V R Shenoy
How far can Vajpayee and Musharraf go?
I have made it a rule to read Pakistani journals from time to time, if only because it is good to see ourselves as others see us. (I assume my Pakistani counterparts do the same.) One particular item that appeared in The Dawn recently seemed to leap out at me.
On June 15, it said, Pakistan and Belgium had signed a bilateral agreement to reschedule debt service payments worth 81.53 million Belgian francs. I do not know how much that figure is worth in American dollars, but we can safely assume that it is a substantial amount.
I was more than a little surprised at this item. Not, I hasten to add, because of any disrespect to the hardworking people of that tiny European nation. (Put Karachi and Lahore together, and their combined population would probably be equal to -- possibly greater than -- that of Belgium.)
No, I am surprised because Belgium's is not the first name that comes to mind when a nation is looking for a loan. The United States, Germany, Japan, France, Britain -- these are the traditional sources of aid. Why then did Islamabad suddenly turn to Brussels? More to the point, why has it been forced to ask for the repayment of the loan to be rescheduled?
When I couple this with Pervez Musharraf's reported statement that the state of the Pakistani economy might hurt the dignity of the nation, I am forced to wonder just how bad the situation really is. Is that why he offered to meet the prime minister of India at any place and at any time?
It is probably one of the reasons why Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to break the ice and invite Musharraf to Delhi. Whatever some people in other nations say, both India and Pakistan are mature enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. But the thought of an economic meltdown across the border is one that gives Indian policy-makers sleepless nights. Because it would mean that government authority in Pakistan is on the verge of breaking down.
Contrary to popular opinion -- in both India and Pakistan -- Kashmir is not, repeat not, the chief issue as far as India is concerned. Forty years ago, the Indian and the Pakistani positions were precisely what they are today; that did not prevent Jawaharlal Nehru and Field Marshal Ayub Khan from reaching an accord on sharing the Indus waters. Nor did war break out in 1971 over Kashmir.
India's genuine concern is the freedom with which militants operate out of Pakistani territory. Fifteen years ago, Delhi was worried about infiltration into Punjab. Today, it is Kashmir. Tomorrow, it could be some other border state. India would like to know whether the powers-that-be in Islamabad can keep a rein on the hotheads any longer. Especially since a lot of the militants entering India through the mountain passes aren't even Pakistani, but come from as many as 13 different nationalities.
(Other nations are equally worried. On the same day that Pakistan was forced to come to terms with Belgium, Russia and China made a public announcement about forging a joint strategy against 'fundamentalist forces'. Both nations refrained from naming any country, but it is clear who they were talking about.)
The Indian side has its own compulsions. Six months of a cease-fire led to some goodwill in the valley, but it could not actually lead to the end of violence. India wants to focus on the economy, especially infrastructure; battling militancy -- a process that has lasted two decades -- is a waste.
There is, therefore, at least to my mind, a common necessity to talk. But how far can they go? Musharraf is hemmed in by the rhetoric of decades. Vajpayee has to battle the mistrust caused by the Kargil conflict, a disappointment heightened by the euphoria of the Lahore Declaration mere months before.
This explains the various confused voices heard in the weeks leading up to the summit. Musharraf cannot admit that cross-border terrorism will be on the agenda. Nor can the Government of India say that the status of Kashmir will be discussed.
Frankly, I do not expect any miracle from the talks. In fact, the chief achievement of the talks will be the fact that the leaders of both nations are, finally, talking to each other once again. As Winston Churchill once remarked, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war!"
The problem was foreseen 45 years ago by the late Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, then president and chief ideologue of the Jan Sangh. Those were peaceful times, but he saw that they could not last forever. So he came up with a radical solution; India and Pakistan, he said, should form a loose confederation.
Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, the Socialist leader, was so stunned that he went to see the Jan Sangh leader and asked him to repeat this in a joint statement. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya agreed and a press release was issued. But neither leader was in any position to make himself heard. Pakistan was not high on Nehru's agenda as he toured the world. And his counterparts across the border preferred to rely on UN resolutions and their own soldiers rather than talk to India.
India and Pakistan cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of those years that the locusts ate. But neither should they create expectations that cannot be fulfilled. There is always the possibility that talks could lead to a lasting peace, but it is a very distant policy indeed. However, it is at least a step in the right direction.
So, let us talk to Pervez Musharraf by all means. After all, if the authority of the Pakistani government continues to wither, who knows whom India might have to deal with next time!
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