Manmohan and Musharraf make nice

Posted in Broader Middle East | 28-Sep-04 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

India's new Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf shake hands before going into a one-on-one meeting in New York Friday, Sept. 24, 2004.
NEW DELHI - Previous meetings of the heads of government of India and Pakistan often have been marked and marred by acrimony, a war of words, harping by Pakistan on Kashmir (called the "K-word" by the Indian media) and harping by India on cross-border terrorism in the form of rising infiltration. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf met in New York on Friday, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session. It was their first meeting since Manmohan took charge, at a place (the US), a forum (the UN) and with an opportunity (large media exposure) that the two leaders could have used to score every international brownie point to maximum effect.

Yet the hour-long one-to-one meeting without aides, as well as their speeches and other interactions, including with the media, couldn't have gone off on a more pleasant note. Manmohan, after his appointment with Musharraf, had to clarify that he did indeed raise the issue of cross-border terrorism (which did not form part of the joint statement released), eclipsed as the occasion was by other weighty issues such as the economic benefits the two countries can derive through an agreement on a gas pipeline that would run from Iran through Pakistan to India. The atmosphere was one of bonhomie in which the two leaders praised each other and exchanged Urdu poetry and paintings. Pakistan's cash-strapped economy stands to net US$500 million to $600 million as annual pipeline transit fees, while India will be saved the huge expense of undersea construction of the gas pipeline.

As was expected, Musharraf in the course of the week in New York did issue warnings to India - but they were not in the form of threats of missiles, militants, nuclear bombs raining down; nor did he denounce what Pakistan calls a dismal human-rights record in the Indian part of Kashmir, as has been the case in the past. He did, however, assail India's growing outsourcing industry, in which he said the Pakistanis could do better, given their knowledge of the English language. It is said that Musharraf is a master at getting his timing right (a phrase derived from cricket, given the craze for the game in this part of the world) for maximum effect. Well, there was no better place to mention Pakistan's competence than in the United States, where the outsourcing story begins. And no better way to attract Pakistan's youth to more mainstream learning, rather than the dreaded madrassas (seminaries) with their fundamentalist leanings, to take on the young Indian back-end industry.

As Prashant Bharwaj, a manager with a prominent call center in Mumbai, said: "The management of my company has asked for a study of the potential that Pakistan has to attract back-end operations for MNCs [multi-national corporations]. It is a cause for worry, as costs in Pakistan can be even lower than in India, with [Pakistan having] a sizable population fluent in English.''

Not too be outdone, Manmohan did his bit to highlight India's need for foreign direct investment (FDI) to the tune of $50 billion over the next 10 years in his address to corporate honchos at the New York Stock Exchange, an address highlighted because of the left-wing parties, key coalition partners of the ruling Congress Party, and the left's opposition to all such moves. Manmohan also seemed pleased with his engagement with the Pakistani general, and told newsmen that there was an "easy flow of conversation and never a dull moment". He said Musharraf spoke with great sincerity and told him he had been grossly misrepresented and wrongly seen as a unifocal person (interested only in talking about Kashmir). "He wants across-the-board progress on issues and I endorsed that," Singh said, indicating that the two sides did not want to abide by a strict timetable to sort out the sticking points.

Indeed, it is apparent that relations between India and Pakistan have improved to levels that appear to display a clear change in mindsets. It is no longer a superficial bonhomie reflected in the slew of confidence-building measures, dismissed by many observers as mere gloss that would fade after one terrorist attack or the usual practice of one country making a convenient political scapegoat by the other. There were structural problems in the relationship between the two warring neighbors, the experts said. From the Pakistani point of view, the army had a vested interest in continuing to bleed India by promoting terrorism, as it ensured its predominance in Pakistani society as well as a flow of unaccounted funds. India, on the other hand, could not but be inflexible about Kashmir as the Indian electorate would not forgive any compromise, the observers said.

But matters are progressing quite to the contrary. India has for the first time agreed that Kashmir is a problem and is willing to talk to Pakistan about it. Pakistan, on the other hand, is showing willingness to accommodate Indian wishes by sticking to the format of the talks being strictly bilateral (even when the two leaders met in US), as well as proceeding on other matters vital to the interests of the two countries in their composite dialogue process. There seem to be calculated leaks planted in the media, one in Time magazine that India is willing to negotiate the Line of Control (that separates the two countries along Kashmir) and the other in the Pakistan daily, The News, that India could withdraw its troops from the extremely hazardous and tough deployment at the Siachen Glacier and count on Pakistan troops not infringing the border.

The question is, why has the peace process gathered momentum to reach the level that it has at this moment? The answer lies in the way history is going to be written, something of which the leaders of both the countries seem acutely aware.

From the Indian point of view, Manmohan's Congress government is under immense pressure to bring to fruition the peace process initiated by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last January - the one major achievement of the previous administration. In fact, the exit of Vajpayee in the elections could be a blessing in disguise for the peace process as it puts an added pressure on the Manmohan government, acutely aware of the judgment of history: did Manmohan have the vision to carry forward the good work initiated by Vajpayee, or did he not?

By all indications, Manmohan seems to be emerging as his own man. He has a loyal and competent team in place and his instruction to them is to "think outside of the box", which was also the advice that Vajpayee proffered Manmohan before his US trip - do not take the beaten path. One indication of such an approach is that for the first time since 1948, Pakistani journalists have been allowed to visit Indian Kashmir to take a first-hand view of the situation. It is also becoming apparent that Manmohan enjoys the considerable confidence of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, and he has a mind of his own as reflected in the slow but definite sidelining of the foreign ministry under Natwar Singh, as Manmohan begins to take charge. Vajpayee, too, pretty much ran foreign policy on his own.

From Pakistan's point of view, Musharraf also seems to be driven a bit by the way he is going to be portrayed in future. Now that he has not only consolidated his position within the army but also destroyed all political opposition, he has the liberty to take a larger, longer-term view of issues, including of himself and his role in history. Either he could be recorded in history as yet another Pakistani general who thrived and stuck to a rabidly anti-India and by default pro-army, pro-fundamentalist approach for his own survival - or a leader who brought about change. Musharraf seems to be fighting to climb the latter ladder, though it is not easy given the vested interests that flourish and benefit from India-Pakistan tension and conflict. This time around, however, there is the added promise of economic gains and prosperity flowing from healthy relations with India, and Musharraf has latched onto this vision, which is likely to create a powerful constituency in his country for peace as well.

Clearly, the two countries have begun to fight a different war - a battle for business interests that can benefit both or where both can compete as two economic powerhouses, India as one that has already been acknowledged globally and Pakistan as one yet to make its mark. Manmohan's UN speech focused more on India's interest in procuring a Security Council seat, as well as a veiled attack on the US "preemptive" attack on Iraq and support for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. At this General Assembly, Musharraf presented to the world his vision of a moderate Pakistan, while last year he had spewed venom on the Kashmir issue. Last year Indian prime minister Vajpayee talked of Pakistan being a leading sponsor of global terrorism. Not this time.

Is this change in tone, rhetoric and the talk of peace and economic gains an indication of more good times to come? One hope that posterity will record both Musharraf and Manmohan in glowing terms.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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