The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Agra Summit: Cautious Optimism in Pakistan

While it is true that Pakistani people’s perception of President Musharraf acting fairly in Agra will consolidate his rule, it is also possible that his failure to settle Pakistan’s internal crises will allow his critics to use his summit performance as a handle to pillory him, says I. A. Rahman

THE mood in Pakistan is predominantly one of optimism, despite the fact that neither the Pakistani media nor the public at large has displayed the kind of euphoria about the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting as is being witnessed in India probably because of a belief in the hosts’ need to demonstrate their bona fides. Indeed the average citizen is less inclined than General Pervez Musharraf to use the prefix ‘cautious’.

A reason for this sanguine outlook is the acceptance by an overwhelming majority of the people of the need for peaceful relations with India. Those who previously maintained that this objective could not be realised until Pakistan gained Kashmir through a UN-supervised plebiscite or through military means, have, apart from the jehadi groups, shrunk to a fringe. The less populous provinces (Baluchistan, Frontier and Sindh) had always been keen on a Kashmir settlement on any terms because they recognised this problem as the main factor responsible for the denial of their democratic rights as federating units. A major change has taken place in the thinking of the people of Punjab because of the realisation that poverty and unemployment cannot be overcome without a peaceful settlement with India.


On Pakistan’s side, peace with India is desired by Gen Musharraf to overcome the crisis of legitimacy
On Pakistan’s side, peace with India is desired by Gen Musharraf to overcome the crisis of legitimacy

It was this pressure of public opinion that obliged all political parties, except the militant clerics, to welcome the summit although Benazir Bhutto has continued to question Gen Musharraf’s credentials and ARD Chief, Nawabzada Nasrullah has unconvincingly argued that the time is not ripe for a meeting. The public is also convinced that Vajpayee will be talking to the real establishment in Pakistan and a representative of the Kashmir-or-nothing lobby, and that his actions will carry a greater guarantee of acceptance than anyone else’s.

This reality was summed up by the widely-respected columnist Dr Mohammad Waseem when he wrote: "The political class, in general, seems to be in favour of, at least, a partial if not total agreement with India on controversial issues. Those belonging to nationalist parties from the smaller provinces generally welcome prospects of restoration of normal relations with India."

The second reason for optimism is the realisation by a majority that the new summit round is taking place at a time when the stakes for both sides are unprecedentedly high. The Indian state has recognised the value of the dividend that a settlement with Pakistan will yield. This factor is a far more effective catalyst than the earlier perceptions of the need for normal, good-neighbourly relations. Pakistanis have no reason to discount the view that Vajpayee has been fired by intimations of immortality if he can establish peace in the troubled South Asia. On Pakistan’s side, peace with India is desired by Gen Musharraf to overcome the crisis of legitimacy and also to keep the life-support system for the economy operational. Neither side can afford to proclaim failure of talks, subject, however, to an important reservation. An attempt by either side to exaggerate the other side’s compulsions could reduce possibilities of maximum possible give and take.

There is, however, considerable difference of opinion on the parameters of the agreement that both sides could claim to be a breakthrough. Gen Musharraf has been able to win over his critics by telling them that Kashmir will be at the top of agenda and that he will not barter away the Kashmiri people’s right to a free choice. He cannot possibly be unmindful of the warnings, delivered among others by one of his predecessors in the army top slot, Gen Aslam Beg, that his failure to maintain this position will prove disastrous for him. However, he has created space for himself, and perhaps for Vajpayee as well, by declaring that he will respect whatever solution of the Kashmir issue is acceptable to the people of the former state.

Further, one should take into consideration the first Pakistani official reaction to Vajpayee’s letter of invitation. The chief of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj-Gen Rashid Qureshi, who should be taken more as an authentic spokesperson of the regime than a representative of the occasionally-consulted foreign office, had said. "We want to talk about the resolution of the Kashmir issue, at least start towards resolution of the issue." This is what Gen Musharraf means by flexible attitude and promises to be as flexible as Vajpayee can be. Quite obviously, he needs evidence of India’s deviation from its traditionally-held position on Kashmir to cover up and possibly justify a similar deviation on his part.

It is, therefore, a fair assumption that Gen Musharraf will not insist on agreement on a blueprint for Kashmir’s solution as a precondition for talks in other areas — trade, travel, exchanges, etc. He, however, may be ready to accept a formula leading to the satisfaction of the Kashmiri people. It will not be easy to find a formula for ascertaining the wishes of the people of Kashmir, other than a plebiscite or another election of the kind held so far in both parts of the divided state. But the task is not impossible.

There is, however, considerable anxiety in Pakistan over several imponderables. The first is the difference of opinion within the country over the Mujahideen factor. Vajpayee should be expected to make any Kashmir formula contingent on the cessation of militancy in Kashmir. Gen Musharraf is likely to argue that a decline in militancy will correspond to whatever confidence-building measures India can take. How that logjam is to be broken remains to be seen. The impression that Gen Musharraf has the means and the will to end the Mujahideen activity may or may not be correct. But the General should be alive to the danger of being blamed for failing to match India’s overtures. The second imponderable is the impact Gen Musharraf’s accord with Vajpayee will have on his own political course. While it is true that the Pakistani people’s perception of Gen Musharraf acting fairly in Agra will consolidate his rule, it is also possible that his failure to settle Pakistan’s internal crises will allow his critics to use his summit performance as a handle to pillory him. At the same time, Pakistanis are worried about Gen Musharraf’s lack of the intra-government consultation facilities that Vajpayee reputedly enjoys. That invites doubts about the Pakistani side’s potential for advocacy and diplomacy both.

The debate on whether or not Gen Musharraf is qualified to negotiate with the Indian Premier is unlikely to end soon. He has lost ground further with the democratic opinion in Pakistan by becoming President and thus serving a notice of his intention to be around for an indefinite period. The question of his trustworthiness will rankle. However, for the time being this issue will be pushed under the carpet under the familiar doctrine of necessity for a change in public interest.

The question even the pragmatists in Pakistan are asking is what can be offered by Vajpayee that he can sell to his parivar and Gen Musharraf can sell to the hardliners in his ranks. No important segment of public opinion in Pakistan is likely to accept permanent division of Kashmir along the LoC or a formula of sub-dividing the Indian part. It could be willing to accept a non-communal formula that recognises the democratic rights of the Kashmiris on an equal basis on both sides, which will not give the impression of a prohibited compromise by India or Pakistan. Since this does not appear to be beyond the pale of possibility, optimism is not entirely unfounded.

The writer is former editor of The Pakistan Times