Monday, May 19, 2008

Hard Line

Hard Line
- Seema Mustafa

Mr Mukherjee might just find that his 'hard line' on terrorism will be fully eeciprocated by a 'hard line' on Kashmir by Pakistan. It is too early to say where this will take the two governments, and whether the rigid positions will affect the better ties or will the peace process indeed prove irreversible?

India and Pakistan are getting ready for another round of talks, to basically review the last composite dialogue and get ready for another year of pretty much the same thing. That is dialogue on the issues identified by the two sides - Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, terrorism, etc. with little progress on any.

Minister of external affairs Pranab Mukherjee will find that the situation in Islamabad has changed perhaps even more than his government anticipated. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, eager to remain out of the limelights, has gone indoors as he has decided to be very careful about not arouse opposition ire and thereby fuel the demand for his ouster. He has been keeping unusual silence, and although he has the support of the Bush administration he cannot be sure that the next President in office will be as kind. In fact, judging from the statements of the Democrat aspirants he is certainly not in favour, and can expect a major shift in policy once old friend Bush is out of power.

Musharraf has some understanding with PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, but this does not extend to PML's Nawaz Sharif. His relations with army chief Kiyani are supposedly good, but then the latter is a canny soldier who is aware, like the rest of Pakistan, that the old general has lost much of his popularity and appeal. One of the main targets in the recent elections in Pakistan was General Musharraf with the common man turning against him entirely. Not just the honeymoon but the relationship was over. Of course, National Security Advisor M.K.Narayanan was amongst those giving him a clean chit, even when the Americans were becoming a little cautious, and in the process inviting criticism from the political parties in the fray.

Zardari has been unable to win Nawaz Sharif over, with the restoration of the judiciary proving to be the sticking point. This was expected, as Sharif had contested the polls on this platform while Zardari and the PPP had kept away from what they regarded as a contentious issue. Despite the talks held in cities outside Pakistan the two were unable to hammer out an agreement, largely because Zardari cannot compromise on the judiciary without compromising his own future in politics. Nawaz Sharif, for obvious reasons, cannot back off from his promise without losing all credibility and it does seem to the casual observer that his long years in exile have matured the politician. He is looking at the immediate future, and knows that he has a good chance of getting the majority in Pakistan on his own if he stands committed to the restoration of the judiciary and the removal of Musharraf.

It was clear that the sympathy vote for Benazir went to Nawaz Sharif in the elections. No one expected him to do so well, least of all he himself. That is why he first decided not to contest the polls, and when he agreed he set up candidates in limited constituencies. Even then he emerged as a major factor in the polls, who could not be ignored by the PPP without weakening the new government. The common mans philosophy was simple: Bibi is no more and we are not sure of Zardari. We know Nawaz Sharif so we have voted for him. What all did not say, but many did, Zardari is still suspect in the eyes of the average Pakistani as they do not trust him completely and regard him with suspicion. In the PPP itself he is not widely popular, and is already earning the reputation of working with a coterie that is becoming more influential than many mainline leaders who are gradually being sidelined. Zardari's wariness of lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan was a matter of great gossip in Islamabad and Lahore circles, particularly as the latter was virtually ignored by the PPP leadership during his days under house arrest. His demand for the restoration of the judiciary was picked up by the PML-N but not by his own party.

Nawaz Sharifs decision to pull out of the government and extend it issue based support has worried the PPP. His call for a street stir for the restoration of the judiciary might not have had great impact, but retains the potential in the days to come. The confusion in the government has given the army a free hand and Kiyani a much needed breathing space. Jammu and Kashmir, according to reports appearing here, is facing greater infiltration and this is supposed to be because of the absence of political control over the army's movements. Of course, infiltration statistics have become political in India, with the numbers varying according to the status of relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. There have been several occasions in the past when the statistics given by the Indian army have differed from those reeled out by government agencies and the Home Ministry.

Judging again from the planted briefings by the ministry of external affairs on the eve of Pranab Mukheree's departure for Pakistan, it does seem that India will be taking a hard line. Or at least not as soft as it had been in the last couple of years, with terrorism back as the main issue for the consultations. The new rulers in Pakistan have already been speaking about Kashmir, and even suggested it be resolved according to the UN resolutions that President Musharraf had been more than willing, at one stage, to forego. Clearly the politicians in Pakistan do not have the mantle to ignore the extremist opinion, and the weaker that the government is the more it will rely on rhetoric to keep itself in power. There is some truth in the Pakistani belief that relations with India could have been improved only under a military ruler, for if once convinced that this was essential he had the power and the ability to ignore shades of opinion, and deliver.

After a hardline stand, Musharraf did dissolve into a benign dictator in so far as India was concerned, quite willing to give a long rope for the composite dialogue. He was prepared to talk on Kashmir, a better position than the usual "it is ours" line that has been the base from which successive governments in Pakistan operated. It is of course, another matter that our governments did little for Jammu and Kashmir, and even today have no internal policy to resolve the longstanding problem regardless of the fact that a large section of the population has been alienated from Pakistan over the last several years. The window of opportunity has again been lost because of political dithering and apathy here.

So Mr Mukherjee might just find that his 'hard line' on terrorism will be fully reciprocated by a 'hard line' on Kashmir by Pakistan. It is too early to say where this will take the two governments, and whether the rigid positions will affect the better ties or will the peace process indeed prove irreversible? The Americans are not particularly happy with the current political situation in Pakistan and would not mind India putting some pressure on the new government that has been making anti-US noises lately. Perhaps this has been more out of compulsion than belief, but even so it cannot be music for the years of the Bush administration that has placed the Repulicans in the dock on issues of foreign policy.

All in all, it will be an interesting visit by Mukherjee and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon. But it will at best be a process of edification for a government quite out of tune with Pakistan developments as recent statements by top functionaries have shown, rather than a path breaking event that will chart out a new course in New Delhi-Islamabad relations.

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