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A Seismic Shift?

October 2004
A Seismic Shift?

The tone and substance of the recent Singh-Musharraf meeting in New York was a world apart from the usual warring between the neighbors.


When it comes to Stately visits between the two countries, the positions were predictably trite. "There can be no bilateral talks that do not first address Kashmir," was the tired Pakistani position. For India, Kashmir could not be untangled from a host of bilateral issues, most critical amongst them being Pakistan's cross-border infiltration and its discreet but undeniable support of the insurgency in Kashmir. And so we hung on the status quo, which in spite of brief periods of hope, has remained an impasse.

Last month, however, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with President Pervez Musharraf in New York, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, there was a different optimism in the air. Perhaps the international forum and media attention only added to the zeal of both leaders to score brownie points. But that doesn't take away from the fact that underlying dynamics and intentions seem to have shifted towards constructive goals.

The hour-long one-on-one meeting without aides and media hoopla couldn't have gone off on a more pleasant note. So much so, that after the meeting, Singh had to clarify that he did raise the issue of cross border terrorism (which did not figure in the joint statement released) to address indignant reporters who may have worked themselves up for the usual heat.

There was an atmosphere of bonhomie in which the two leaders praised each other and exchanged Urdu poetry. Musharaff's thoughtful gift to Singh was a painting of the school in Pakistan where the later studied. (Incidentally, the Indian Prime Minister was born in what is today Pakistan, while the Pakistani General was born in New Delhi!). Singh seemed pleased with his engagement with the Musharraf, and told newsmen that there was an "easy flow of conversation and never a dull moment." He said Musharraf spoke with great sincerity and told him he had been grossly misrepresented and wrongly seen as a person of singular focus (interested only in talking about Kashmir). "He wants across-the-board progress on issues and I endorsed that," Singh said, indicating that the two sides did not want to abide by a strict timetable to sort out the sticking points.

As was expected, Musharraf, in the course of the week in New York, did ring out warnings to India ? but it was not in the form of threats of missiles or militants, as has been in the past, but a direct attack on India's growing outsourcing industry. He unabashedly proclaimed that they can do it (outsourcing) better than India. Not to be outdone, Singh too did his bit to highlight India's plan to attract foreign direct investment to the tune of $150 billion over the next ten years.

Such banter and competition about economics is precisely the kind of change that both sides would welcome over the usual politics of the dreaded "K" word. Drowning the usual skepticism and even antagonism that had characterized Indo-Pak dialogue in the past was the weighty issue of economic progress of both countries. Case in point was a discussion about the proposed gas pipeline that will run through Iran-Pakistan-India. It could net Pakistan's cash-strapped economy up to $600 million in annual transit fees. In exchange, India would save the huge expense of undersea pipelines.

Indeed, it is apparent that relations between India and Pakistan have improved to levels that appear to display a clear change of mindsets. It is no longer a superficial bonhomie reflected in the slew of confidence building measures, which many observers dismissed as mere gloss that would die with the first sign of volatility in Kashmir or with the standard practice of both countries of using the other as a surefire political scapegoat and distraction. After all, as per many experts, these were part of the structural problems in the relationship. From the Pakistan point of view, the Army had a vested interest in continuing a "bleed India" policy by promoting terrorism, as it ensured its pre-dominance in Pakistani society.���India, on the other hand could not but be inflexible about Kashmir as the Indian electorate would not forgive any compromise, the observers said.

But, matters are progressing quite to the contrary. India has for the first time agreed that Kashmir is a problem and is willing to talk to Pakistan about it. Pakistan, on the other hand, is showing willingness to accommodate Indian wishes by sticking to the talks being strictly bilateral (even when the two leaders met in USA). Both are also willing to proceed on other matters vital for the interests of the two countries in the composite dialogue process.

There seem to be calculated leaks planted in the media, one in the Time magazine that India is willing to negotiate the Line of Control (that separates the two countries along Kashmir) and the other in the Pakistan daily The News that India could withdraw its troops from the extremely hazardous and tough deployment at Siachen glacier and count on Pakistan troops not infringing the border.

The question is, why has the peace process gathered momentum to reach the level that it has at the moment? The answer lies in the way history is going to be written ? which both leaders seem acutely aware of. On the Indian side, Singh and Congress government is under immense pressure to take to fruition the peace process initiated by Vajpayee. Indeed Vajpayee's exit could be a blessing in disguise for the peace process as it puts an added pressure on the Singh government. On the current outcome lies the judgment of history ? did Singh have the vision to carry forward the good work initiated by Vajpayee?

By all indications, Singh seems to be emerging as his own man. He has a loyal and competent team in place and his instruction to them is to "think out of box.'' One indication of such an approach is that for the first time since 1948, Pakistani journalists have been allowed to visit Indian Kashmir.

As for Musharraf, he has consolidated his position within the army as well as destroyed all political opposition. He now has the liberty to take a larger-than-life view of issues, including himself, and may well be driven by how history will look at him. Was he just another military general who propped himself up with a rabid anti-India stance, or was he a visionary who led Pakistan to constructive ends?

Musharraf looks to be fighting to climb the latter ladder, though it is not easy, given the vested interests that thrive on an India-Pakistan conflict. What is a new angle this time around is the promise of economic prosperity through better relations. This is likely to create a powerful constituency for peace as well.

One only has to compare last year's international proclamations of both these countries to the ones voiced at the UN this year to notice that there seems to be a fundamental shift. Last year Musharraf spewed venom on Kashmir and Vajpayee talked of Pakistan being a leading sponsor of global terrorism.

Now, the two countries have begun to fight a different war ? a battle for business interests that can suit both or where both can compete as two economic powerhouses. Manmohan's UN speech focused more on India's interest in procuring a UN Security Council seat as well as a veiled attack on the pre-emptive strike on Iraq by U.S.; while Musharraf presented to the world his vision of a moderate Pakistan.

The seasoned veterans are well aware that when it comes to political topography in the area of Indo-Pak relations, there can be many mirages. But for now, there is a distinct mood of optimism thanks to leaders who seem willing to capitalize on economic opportunities rather than be pulled down by warring. One hopes that history does record Singh and Musharraf in glowing terms.

[Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist]

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