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Vision and Television

July 23, 2001

The Pioneer

Vision and television
Shubha Singh

The President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, came to India with a one-point agenda that revolved around the Kashmir problem and no other issue was allowed to come in its way.

He returned to Islamabad in a post midnight flight having achieved his primary purpose, even though he would have liked to have gone home with a document that could have certified his success. Over the three-day summit it became clear that General Musharraf was playing almost entirely to his domestic audience, after he had met the insistent international demand that he begin talking to India.President Musharraf, who likes to describe himself as a soldier, had little regard for diplomatic niceties. The meeting with the leaders of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference at the Pakistani High Commissioner's residence took place despite the open disapproval of his hosts. He made his position more than clear by saying: "If India expects me to ignore Kashmir, I should buy Neharwali haveli and live here." The first day of his visit went off fairly equably when President KR Narayanan welcomed him as a distinguished son of Delhi at the evening's banquet. President Narayanan spoke of the need to address the ills plaguing the two countries, and the need to remove poverty. General Musharraf responded with a well-drafted speech.

Then onwards, President Musharraf and his delegation continued to harp on the "Kashmir or nothing" theme during the formal discussions. The talks went on but the belligerent tone of General Musharraf's televised press conference with Indian editors had vitiated the atmosphere. Pakistani commentators have said that this is just the General's way - he is frank and speaks his mind plainly. But several things that he said were not palatable to the Indian side or even to the Indian public. The dialogue process went downhill after the breakfast meeting.

If the Pakistani side had shown some flexibility, an agreement could still have been arrived at, but the Pakistanis have always been hard bargainers. President Musharraf said that the chairs and table for the signing ceremony had been arranged, " some unfreezing had taken place, but something happened. We were so close and ended up so far." At his press conference in Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said: "If there was more time the residual para could have been worked out to mutual satisfaction." The attempt to introduce a last paragraph stating that movement on other issues would depend on progress on the Kashmir issue ended the possibility of an agreed document. It is the later paragraphs of an agreement that hold the crucial clauses.

President Musharraf's late night farewell call that extended to 90 minutes was an attempt to resolve "the residual para" at the highest level. Something similar had happened during the Shimla Agreement when the talks were officially declared a failure, but a short meeting between the two principals, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, had brought about an agreement. But President Musharraf had already overshot his draw by going public with his views that had not shown any signs of flexibility or even realism.

After the end of the Agra Summit, both sides have been trying to play down the acrimony. Islamabad is under pressure to talk to India. New Delhi has already displayed its intentions by laying out the red carpet; the onus now lies with the Pakistani President to take the talks further. New Delhi overreacted and overhyped the summit, clouding the real purpose of the visit. General Musharraf had been pleading for talks, "anytime, anywhere" for almost a year. It should have invited the Pakistani leader and allowed him to display his sincerity about wanting to improve relations with India. President Musharraf had made correct moves initially, but later the sour notes had begun to emerge from Islamabad. India's strong desire to live in peace with its neighbours is seen as a sign of weakness. It has happened time and again with Pakistan. It happened in Agra as well.

President Musharraf said that the people of Pakistan do not trust the Indian Government, but it seemed that the Pakistani leader was actually attributing his own sentiments to the Pakistani people. He said that the people feared that the Indians would ensure that the important Kashmir question would get lost in the midst of a number of other issues. "Buy time and the issue will die" was the feeling, which was the reason why he insisted on Kashmir and Kashmir alone. The Pakistani reluctance to a prepared agenda, the usual practice in high-level summits, and their heavy reliance on the impact of a personal chemistry between the two leaders indicated this sentiment.

Pakistan is changing the rules of summit management. According to Pakistani officials, the media is an integral part of the summit. Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said: "In contemporary diplomacy, it is impossible to segregate the discussions with interaction with the media." It was the first time that the Pakistani leadership had come across high-voltage 24-hour television coverage with its constant demand of new developments, and it made full use of it. Pakistani diplomacy has traditionally relied on the media to project its point of view, particularly when it comes to India-Pakistan relations.

Even if the other party subsequently denies the news reports, the Pakistani establishment has taken it as a plus point to be first with their version. The Indian side, always more keen to chalk up some forward movement has usually been beaten at this game, by its reluctance to vitiate the atmosphere.

The telecast of President Musharraf's breakfast meeting with editors in Agra was seen as a Pakistani masterstroke. The General was able to put across his viewpoint to his domestic audience while on Indian soil, as well as tell the Indians what he wanted. The interview may have served his one point agenda on Kashmir that is mainly targeted at Pakistani viewers, but it scuttled any possibility of a successful summit in Agra. It revealed the General's mind to his Indian audience, and what one saw was not a Pakistani leader trying to improve ties with its neighbour, but a General assuming the leadership of the hardline groups in Pakistan.

Equating the Kargil intrusion that he masterminded, with the 1971 support to the Mukti Bahini and Siachen, showed that the General's mindset was still stuck in righting Pakistani grievances. Incidentally, President Musharraf was distinctly uncomfortable when a Bangladeshi journalist questioned him on this reference at his marathon press conference in Islamabad. The violent, terrorist activity in Jammu & Kashmir was likened to an indigenous freedom struggle, such as the Palestinian cause. The shedding of innocent blood of civilian bystanders was dismissed as inevitable, as in the course of all freedom struggles.

"Address the Kashmir issue and India-Pakistan can live in peace." This was General Musharraf's nostrum on the bilateral relations between the two neighbours. However, President Musharraf, by harping on the Kashmir issue, has taken it to such an emotional pitch in his country, that it will be practically impossible for him to show any kind of flexibility on the subject.


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