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By Pran Chopra
THE ANGRY exchanges between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee at the NAM summit in Kuala Lumpur make it difficult to expect that the two leaders can hold a peaceful bilateral summit anytime soon. But other things are also happening which permit one to hope.
Gen. Musharraf recently paid an extended state visit to Moscow, the first by a Pakistani leader since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went there more than 30 years ago. There was a time not so long ago when such an event would have disturbed many in India and elated many more in Pakistan with the belief that Pakistan had made a breach in an Indian diplomatic stronghold. Gen. Musharraf's visit to Moscow has done neither. There has been realistic comment in the Pakistan press, and India has shown quiet self-confidence. Both countries have noted that Russia has been sensitive and discreet in handling them and the problems between them, avoiding the American mistakes of promising too much and doing too little.
It is quite likely that in response to an invitation extended already by Gen. Musharraf, Vladimir Putin will go to Pakistan, thus becoming the first Russian leader ever to do so. There is no reason why he should not and every reason why he should. If the same constructive mood prevails in India, Pakistan and Russia on that occasion as well, it will be a sign that a timely maturity has been reached in this latest diplomatic triangle in this part of the world. But it is not too soon even now to welcome a fresh breeze that has blown in from Moscow via the Pakistan press.
For instance, it was not only the Indian media but also a Pakistan newspaper, the Pakistan Daily Times, of February 8, which said that Mr. Putin was briefing Mr. Vajpayee on his talks with Gen. Musharraf even while the talks were going on, and that Mr. Vajpayee was "very satisfied that President Putin conveyed to Pakistan that cross-border terrorism should stop" and that terrorists hiding in Pakistan should be prosecuted. Noting that some people in Pakistan might have been disappointed that Gen. Musharraf got nothing on Kashmir out of this visit, the paper candidly underlined three basic truths. First, "Russia has strongly stood by India in its dispute with Islamabad over Kashmir". Second, "like America, Russia too is India's strategic partner". And third, "it is a measure of Pakistan's gradual isolation in the region to note that Iran too has become a kind of strategic partner of India".
Another Pakistani newspaper, the Dawn , editorially advised Pakistan on February 8, "given Russia's longstanding friendship with India, it would be unrealistic for Pakistan to expect Moscow to shift its position on Kashmir and other India-Pakistan disputes", and "Islamabad's close relationship with the Taliban in the 1990s had created problems for Russia in Central Asia... Islamabad needs to continue to (combat) terrorists in Pakistan". Only the previous day, in welcoming a call by Mr. Putin to India and Pakistan "to resume a dialogue", the Dawn had editorially pointed out that Mr. Putin had coupled this with "asking Pakistan to stop militants from crossing the Line of Control".
This rider by Mr. Putin did not evoke any adverse reaction in the Pakistan press, which makes an interesting contrast with what happened when the same demand was made by the American Ambassador in Pakistan, Nancy Powell. She said Pakistan must live up to its pledges to stop terrorists from crossing into Jammu and Kashmir, and she was greeted by a huge protest in the press. The reason for the difference appears to be that Mr. Putin was discreet in adding the rider, while taking care to inform India that he had done so.
There is also an interesting contrast on another issue. In urging India and Pakistan to resume talking, America did indeed emphasise that the issues at stake were a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan and that America would intervene only if the two countries invited it to do so. But Mr. Putin went an important step further. He said talks must take place on the basis of the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore documents. These had been rudely dismissed by Gen. Musharraf when he seized power. But they, particularly the Declaration made in Lahore and the MoU the two countries signed there, are the best agreements ever reached by them.
First, they are the only India-Pakistan documents which have publicly opened the door for talks between the two countries on nuclear safety in South Asia. Second, they comprehensively cover all disputes between them as India wanted, while also giving the central place to the Kashmir dispute as Pakistan wanted. Third, what happens to them has become the touchstone for the prospects for future talks, because India insists, rightly, that talks can be useful only if the parties are committed to respecting such agreements as may result.
The importance India attaches to the sanctity of the agreements will become greater if Russia sticks to the position Mr. Putin is said to have taken when Pakistan offered to buy some $ 5 billion worth of Russian military weaponry. He said this could be considered after Pakistan's relations with India became normal, and the road to normality lay through Shimla and Lahore. Hence the advice a commentator in a Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, gave to Gen. Musharraf on February 7: "If foreign policy is taken away from the ISI and given back to the foreign office, where it rightly belongs, it could save us much embarrassment and loss of face in the future."
It needs to be noted, however, that the Pakistan Foreign Office, more so while it was stewarded by Abdul Sattar as Foreign Minister, was not always on the side of peace between the two countries, and the ISI was not always an evil genius, as both showed during a Pugwash conference on South Asian security in Geneva last November. A former and powerful head of the ISI, Durrani, presented a paper there which differed widely from the position taken by Gen. Musharraf about the India-Pakistan agreements since 1997, which culminated in the Lahore documents. They had been jointly steered by the Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his opposite numbers in India. Gen. Musharraf threw them out of the window as rubbish precisely because Mr. Sharif, whom he was to oust in a military coup, had played a part in shaping them. But at the Geneva conference Lt. Gen. Durrani described them as an "opportunity" which was not only "lost" but "squandered".
In fact, the whole tenor of his paper and presentation was so constructive that I suggested the conference should invite him to sit with a few Indian participants of his choice to see what could be done to retrieve the opportunity. But before any of that could happen the mandarins of the Pakistan Foreign Office succeeded in muddying the waters by raising issues which were not germane to the conference.
Can the breeze from Moscow revive the "opportunity"? Perhaps not. But the chances are better now than at any time since Mr. Vajpayee took the bus to Lahore, where the Declaration and the MoU were signed. This is partly because of the change of mood in Pakistan, as reflected in the press comments quoted above; partly because of the style and chemistry of Mr. Putin's diplomacy, which Gen. Musharraf too has now had the chance to taste; partly because of the new compulsions created for both by the long saga of terrorism and by the dangerous crisis over Iraq. Perhaps the new circumstances can be energised by India giving a clear signal to Moscow that it is willing to pick up the thread from where it was left in Lahore provided Pakistan too shows unambiguous commitment to it, even if it be that those documents are restored to the table for the preliminary task of discussing where they need to be modified and updated.
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