Declarations are difficult for generals
‘The News’ – July 18, 2001
It was drama at high noon when General Musharraf sped towards Agra airport even though the clock struck midnight on. After much expectation, and courtship, the so-called “historic summit” collapsed like a pack of cards. Even the cynics criticising Musharraf for making the journey to Agra without mandate expected a joint declaration. There wasn’t even a joint statement.
Blaming Pakistani politicians for succumbing to army pressure, some in India believed it better to do business with the army instead. They found a self-confessing powerless army chief who claimed he’d have to live in India in his old neharwali house if he signed a declaration. The civilian leaders signed Simla, Islamabad and Lahore. All honourable agreements.
Diplomacy is the art of the possible. Political leaders are trained in the art of give and take. General Musharraf is a military dictator. When he speaks, others jump to attention. If they don’t, they are locked away. Surrounded by unelectable yes men, Musharraf, despite proclaimed good intentions, stumbled at each key test: date for elections, political victimisation, economic revival and now foreign policy.
It was startling to witness the puerile brinkmanship where the Indians called the bluff. Time was always running short and then extended. First came the breakfast press ultimatum. Next delay after scheduled time for talks ended. The visit to Ajmer Sharif was postponed too. Islamabad got angry when, having called wolf once too often, Indian sources leaked that the talks would continue the next day. The minute preparations for the Summit came to nothing. Even the ancient knowledge of spicing food with special mood enhancing herbs failed to deliver.
Musharraf made key errors in the trip. He failed to build an internal consensus of legitimate political forces. He went to India on the props of Pakistan’s extremist parties, posing with them before his visit. He relied on an inefficient team which failed him previously. Had they given good advice, he would have stayed an extra day, matching Indian patience with greater patience of his own. Exhausting the other side is a pretty elementary diplomatic trick. Instead he left in a huff.
Apparently Islamabad was keen for a declaration and New Delhi knew it. This was revealed by a Pakistani delegate who told the Gulf News, “I went up to Jaswant Singh and told him he could write what he wanted, we would accept it”. This is extraordinary. It is stunning in its crumbling of political will under pressure. It is little wonder that Foreign Minister Jaswant wanted another day of talks to put in his wish list given the accommodation offered by Islamabad. It is also a case study of why Generals should look after borders and let politicians deal with diplomacy.
Kashmir is central to Pakistani thinking but the Indians have a different view. Narrowing the gulf was the purpose of the visit. If there is an legacy to this Summit, it is that Musharraf allowed New Delhi to match Pakistan’s commitment to the Kashmir Dispute with an equally shrill and high profile repetition of “cross border terrorism”. Since 1993, when the diplomat Dixit offered Pakistan Kashmir as a separate agenda item at the Cyprus Commonwealth Conference, the Indian side was willing to include Kashmir as the bone of contention. But the interpretation of that contention is different to Pakistan’s. The lack of continuity in Pakistan’s governments and foreign office allowed for ignoring this significant development.
Narrowing the focus to the words on a draft statement, usually successfully manoeuvred by diplomats, overlooks the larger picture. That picture involves tense relations between two nuclear capable states that have fought three wars and are daggers drawn at the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir Valley. A nervous world community pushed both leaders towards the negotiating table to lessen tensions dangerous for a South Asia housing one-fifth of humanity.
Some hoped that Musharraf in sherwani would be a born again peacemaker. But he was hampered by his past and his dependence on a military constituency wedded to militancy since the Afghan Jihad days. He lacked a popular mandate and desired his Nation’s highest constitutional posts. He carried the costly burden of the death of three thousand soldiers who died in the Kargil operation. Given his agenda, ambitions, army, America and Afghanistan, Musharraf played his cards well, except for the late night departure.
Camouflage is second nature to the commando and the camouflage came in handy. Landing in his sherwani, he hid the soldier who personally fought in two front lines with India courting death with every breath. Soon the sherwani was replaced with the informal short sleeved and tieless look. The message was, “I am at home and relaxed. You can trust me”.
The President of India did just that. In his banquet speech, he called the General “one of its (India’s) distinguished sons on his first visit to the city after nearly half a century”. This was an amazing turnabout. The man, whose Kargil operation resulted in Indian soldiers losing their lives two years back, was quickly adopted as one of its “distinguished sons” when he indicated an overt willingness to transform.
Given the opportunity, Musharraf played both constituencies. He met with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in a show of solidarity. He also flattered the Indian premier emphasising “the respect and honour for his dignity and statesmanship”. He said he was “prepared to go forward” and show “flexibility”. Lacking internal support, under international financial pressure to play good cop in Delhi and with the UN sanctions heating the Afghan front, the General played the full gallery until his patience ran out at night. He bought international time and good will in the run up to the Summit. He used that goodwill to seize the Presidency, assume draconian powers under the National Security Council, get another tranche of the IMF loan and victimise his opponents.
In New Delhi, he extended an invitation to Premier Vajpayee which was accepted. The promise of another Summit helps his attempts to choreograph a domestic political scenario by October 2002. The potential Summit diverts attention from the growing Talibanisation in Pakistan and the sinking economy. The Indian Foreign Office planned well. But Musharraf beat them at their own game except at the last moment. They went out to woo him but he initially wooed them instead. He hogged the press headlines changing suits several times a day. A different man for every occasion. Disarmingly portraying himself as the “frank and simple soldier.”
But the Summit revealed fatal flaws in the personality and background of the General who today commands the fate of 140 million Pakistanis. First, his dramatic and impetuousness midnight departure for Islamabad. Second, the deep wounds he evokes in both India and Pakistan. The Indian Air Chief, representing his three armed forces, refused to salute him repaying the earlier Lahore refusal to salute Vajpayee and demonstrating solidarity with Indian troops in Kashmir.
In Pakistan, the ghosts of Kargil watch Musharraf. Kargil was Pakistan’s biggest setback since Dacca’s fall in 1971. Having conquered Indian held peaks, borne the relentless pounding of Indian guns, paid the ultimate sacrifice in lives when supply lines cut and soldiers starved to death, the unilateral withdrawal insulted the soldiers. There is something undignified and unsavoury about Musharraf, the architect of the operation, scorning the lives lost. Therefore it was argued, far more dignified and honourable for the new government, unburdened by the cruel Kargil legacy, to enter negotiations after elections conclude in October 2002.
Musharraf had tea and cakes in Agra and posed at the Taj Mahal. Vajpayee’s coming next to have tea and cakes and pose at the Quaid-e-Azam’s Mazaar. These tea parties are yet to stop men and women dying in the blood soaked Kashmir valley. So what were the gains and losses? That two leaders from two nuclear capable states finally broke their silence was an achievement in itself. They sized each other up. They agreed to meet again. But the price was heavy. Two ceasefires broke: the unilateral Indian ceasefire in the Kashmir valley and the Indo-Pak ceasefire between the two countries. Even as Musharraf declared, “a military solution is not an option” at the grand presidential dinner where his delegates feasted, more than eighty people lost their lives in renewed violence. The sound of bullets never stopped. It was a grim reminder of the real dangers South Asia poses to peace and security.
The failure of the Summit reinforces calls by Pakistani politicians for restoring democracy so representative governments can deal with diplomacy. More tellingly, the Summit showed that Politicians can come up with agreements but declarations are difficulties for Generals.