The Agra Summit
July 16, 2001
General Musharraf flew into the Indian capital to a resplendent red carpet welcome. He tried not to smile. I remembered my father’s words when we flew into Chandigarh to begin the Simla Summit in 1972.
“Do not smile”, my father said. “Remember our soldiers who died and are imprisoned. And do not look grim, otherwise the Press will say the talks are doomed”.
Yet, it was difficult to look unhappy as our Indian hosts smilingly and happily met us. The warmth of their reception was infectious, even if Indian Premier Gandhi was more aloof.
Airports can be windy. My father wore a suit. General Musharraf, who often wears suits in Pakistan, chose to wear a Sherwani. The Sherwani flapped in the wind as the General tried to inspect the guard and meet the VIPs standing in line.
The awkwardness of the flapping Sherwani summed up the awkward arrival. There was the Indian military presenting a guard of honour to the man who started a war in which so many of their colleagues died. In turn, the General saluting those who fought back in Kargil killing men he led in the Pakistan army.
Simla was different. Islamabad’s rulers, who presided over the fighting in Dacca, had gone. A new leadership with new hopes came to India to build a new relationship. Its arrival was not an insult to the memory of the slain nor was it burdened with complexes over operations gone wrong. The Simla Agreement, child of the seventies Summit, gave birth to the longest lasting peace between the two countries, even when conflict came perilously close.
The Simla Agreement’s strength lay in that it was an agreement between two democratically elected leaders. They had a mandate and they used it effectively.
Musharraf’s lack of mandate is the major impediment in the Agra Summit providing an understanding of the strength and durability of Simla.
And Premier Vajpayee is a leader already bitten once. Can he take a risk, and be bitten twice?
Even as the General arrived in New Delhi, the drums of death echoed in the disputed Kashmir Valley. Five Indian soldiers and seven Kashmiri militants died in a grim reminder of the violence that shadows the Summit.
Much is at stake in this Summit between two leaders who meet in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, a monument of love and a symbol of Muslim power.
South Asia is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Two nuclear equipped powers stare each other eyeball to eyeball. Their leaders meet after a gap of two years and with much behind the scenes prodding.
The Indian Foreign Office plans well. American President Clinton was bowled over by the reception he received on his visit to the world’s largest democracy. General Musharraf’s itinerary is one that can make the hardest hearts melt. On Indian soil he was received as the undisputed President of Pakistan, an honour his own people have yet to grant him.
The Indian Foreign Office route took Musharraf to the Mahatma Gandhi shrine. There he threw roses in tribute to the ascetic who preached non-violence. He was feted at a lunch where a galaxy of Indian stars turned out to bedazzle him. Next he visited his old home, receiving the gift of the original sale deeds with his Father’s signature. At night, he feasted on a sumptuous banquet while the naval band played, Meri Awaz Suno (Listen to my voice).
The Taj Mahal, the Gandhi Memorial, the old home and the star-studded lunch give a clear message of “love, peace, welcome back home and you can be a star too”. The first day was the day the diplomats dedicated to creating a warm ambiance for the two leaders to meet.
Simla was different. It was business from beginning to end. Ninety thousand prisoners of war were in the camps and the Bengali leader was threatening war crimes for the genocide perpetuated in Bengal. As a teenager, I was the light relief for the international Press. Taken to a convent, to the bookshops, to a tinned fruit cottage industry, I was surprised by the number of Indians who turned out to greet me. The huge crowds and smiling faces showed a people to people desire to improve relations as their leaders holed up for serious dialogue.
For the Musharraf visit, gun-totting commandos replaced the crowds that lined the main streets. Fears of hardliners taking extreme measures forced police vigil at key points. The Black Cat elite commandos and the deserted streets sent a message of their own. Even if the diplomats did their best to create warmth, the talks could be tough. The Indian Air Chief refused to salute Musharraf.
Much depends on the chemistry the Summit leaders build up when they meet in the Retreat without aides. As a trained commando versed in the game of camouflage, Musharraf walks a tight rope between peaceniks and warmongers. The Indian politician and the Pakistani commando meet alone as the whole world watches.
At Simla, with sub-continental prejudice, the bureaucrats decided on a code word to determine the success or failure of the talks. “If it’s a success, we will say a boy is born and if a failure, we will say it’s a girl”.
South Asia, and the larger world community, waits with bated breath to see the offspring of the Musharraf-Vajpayee talks at Agra, the city of love.