The man of the fleeting moment

The man of the fleeting moment
By H.K. Dua, who was recently in Pakistan

OVER the last six years General Pervez Musharraf has emerged as a consummate artiste who can present many faces, enact many roles, look firm and resilient at the same time, or show off swagger, or exude sheer charm. It all depends on what is convenient for him, or his country, at a particular time.

Talking to a group of MPs and senior journalists of South Asia at Islamabad last week, he opted for looking reasonable. He focussed more on Indo-Pakistan relations and tried to convey that he and Dr Manmohan Singh had struck a rapport, suggesting that it was better they did not fritter away a chance to settle the Kashmir dispute when they were both in power and not leave the question unresolved for their successors. “It is a fleeting moment which must be seized,” he said.

The fleeting moment theme came up again and again but at the end of over an hour’s exercise meant for audience at home and in India, he went on juggling with many ideas, leaving everyone wondering what he was really aiming at. It was a virtuoso performance marked by an aside that he had succeeded in creating enough confusion about a possible solution for Kashmir.

As in Delhi last month, he maintained he would not accept the LoC as an international border, nor the Indian position that boundaries could not be redrawn. Making the borders irrelevant, possibly mixed with self-governance for the people of Kashmir, seemed attractive to him. He conceded that these ideas were of conflicting nature, but a solution lay in reconciling them.

He proposed demilitarisation of Kashmir, which in effect would mean India pulling out its troops from Kashmir, slipping in an afterthought that militancy would also go down in case India accepted demilitarisation. This was to counter Indian position that it could not pull out its troops because of the continuing militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.

President Musharraf had apparently suggested demilitarisation of Kashmir in recent contacts with New Delhi, but this is the first time he has gone public about it, indicating this idea is going to come up again in the Indo-Pakistan dialogue.

Actually, too many ideas are in the melting pot, but it will be unrealistic for anyone to believe that a solution of the Kashmir issue is round the corner. What is interesting is that President Musharraf has begun throwing up these ideas into the air. This itself is significant. Perhaps, he is trying to loosen up rigid positions and acquiring an area of flexibility for future negotiations with India.

In the current phase, he has not been indulging in rhetoric. He has not given up Kashmir as a key issue, but is not lately playing it up as the “core issue”, a familiar term he has got used to.

No longer is he talking about “freedom fighters” of Kashmir. Nor a plebiscite, nor the “right of self-determination” of the people of Kashmir. Whatever it means in his lexicon, he is now talking about “self-governance”.

It is not that General Musharraf is a changed man who has forgotten about what has been Pakistan’s obsessional concern about Kashmir. But there seems to be some variation in the familiar script; and a bit of change in the tone and emphasis.

A changed world situation and the circumstances he and Pakistan are placed in are pushing him to walk the track seeking a rapprochement between India and Pakistan. It will be unwise to think that a rapprochement or a settlement of Kashmir are nearby, but several factors have led to President Musharraf’s choosing to throw up positive vibes.

President Musharraf and many others around him have seen that three wars plus the Kargil adventure have not helped Pakistan gain Kashmir.

The 15 years of insurgency — which is essentially a war by other means — has caused many killings, but it has not helped Pakistan either. Taken to the extreme, it led to the December 13 attack on Parliament and a near conflagration with India that Pakistan cannot afford.

The dramatic change in the world situation brought about by Nine Eleven has also compelled President Musharraf to look more reasonable. Having given sanctuary to several terrorist outfits and the Taliban and Al-Qaida men, Pakistan has come under international scanner and pressures.

Soon after Nine Eleven, US Secretary of State Collin Powell telephoned General Msuharraf and bluntly asked him to choose between the US and the forces of terrorism. President Musharraf read the signs of the times fast and preferred to be on the side of the Americans.

In the process, he saved Pakistan from Washington’s wrath, although incurring unpopularity at home. He retained the support of the Army, the main force which governs Pakistan at the same time.

President Mussharraf calculated that with the US having alienated most of the Muslim world, Washington would become dependent on him for fighting terrorism and he could encash his support for securing more F-16s and other military hardware, as well as economic aid.

Over the years, Pakistan had also come to acquire the reputation of “a rogue” or “a failed” state — the appellations that can be abhorrent to any ruler of Pakistan, certainly to President Musharraf who after six years has begun — like many military rulers do — to identify his destiny with that of his country.

Through back-channel diplomacy, the US has certainly been nudging both India and President Musharraf to resolve Kashmir at the earliest, but to think that there is immense pressure on the two to go in for an immediate settlement will be an exaggeration.

Essentially, Washington is looking at a broader picture. It simply does not want any conflagration or an unstable situation developing in the subcontinent which could distract its attention from its global pursuits and fight against terrorism, its emerging policy on oil-rich West Asia (particularly Iran), which make Pakistan crucial for the US aims. The unfolding events in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia also increase the importance of Pakistan in Washington’s eyes.

President Musharraf may have also realised by now that the US is following a policy towards India independent of its policy towards Pakistan. India’s emergence as a major economy and its growing importance in American calculations vis-à-vis China have changed Washington’s view of India. India’s becoming an important factor in Washington’s emerging Asia policy must have had a sobering influence on President Musharraf’s mind.

Also, there is a reason for President Musharraf’s feeling disappointed with the Chinese. There are reports that the General made two sudden visits to Beijing in a week after India had mobilised troops against Pakistan soon after the December 13 attack on Parliament. Despite their substantial help to Pakistan in nuclear and arms area, the Chinese are believed to have turned down President Musharraf’s pleas that Beijing step up pressure on India’s northern border to make him feel comfortable on the Indian front. The Chinese instead chose to go along with others in the Security Council to ensure that there was no flareup between the two nuclear powers of the subcontinent.

The situation at home also does not permit President Musharraf to go in for an adventurist policy on Kashmir any longer. He may have found by now that India might have come on board for discussing Kashmir, but it is no pushover either. With a chunk of the Pakistan Army locked in tackling strife in Balochistan, and political uncertainties in Sind, he cannot feel easy at home.

Politically, there is no one to challenge his position at home, but to govern Pakistan primarily on the support of the Army and the Americans cannot ensure him the place he wants to acquire in Pakistan’s governance or history, either.

Whatever the circumstances, looking reasonable is not a bad policy for President Musharraf after all, although a settlement of the Kashmir issue is not foreseeable in the near future.

For India and Pakistan to settle Kashmir requires a give-and-take approach. Neither Dr Manmohan Singh, nor President Musharraf, can give concessions at this stage. Any concession to India can invoke for the General the wrath of the mullahs and those in the Army who have been passionately focussed on Kashmir throughout their careers in khaki. Dr Manmohan Singh also cannot risk attracting flak from the BJP and many in his own party if he chooses to make any territorial adjustments with President Musharraf.

The two leaders’ search for peace on the subcontinent has to be carried forward gently and patiently. A durable peace cannot be seized in “a fleeting moment”, as the President wants to.