The general struts his stuff in India
NEW DELHI - As far as New Delhi was concerned, it wanted the visit this week by former president General Pervez Musharraf to be uneventful and low key, given its keenness not to upset the democratically elected government in Pakistan.
Knowing Musharraf's penchant to use the media to rake up issues, generally attract attention, play the loyal soldier and visionary statesman at the same time, this was wishful thinking.
It soon became apparent that the general is just not ready or willing to fade into oblivion by limiting himself to the lucrative international lecture circuit and spending time with his dogs, playing golf and tennis.
Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 to become president and also chief of army staff. On August 18, 2008, in a nationally-televised speech, he announced his resignation.
Although Musharraf spoke about being a "man for peace" while in India, he was belligerent and combative, bluntly saying he should not be ruled out from the power stakes in Pakistan. Musharraf said that the "trust deficit" between India and Pakistan had widened in the wake of last November's terror attacks in Mumbai and the one in Lahore last week, but he only ended up fanning more fires.
Musharraf said the two countries could go to war if main disputes were not resolved or if India carried out "any surgical strikes" on suspected terror camps within Pakistani territory. The Mumbai attacks were linked to Pakistani militants.
"In such circumstances, a Kargil-like incident can occur," Musharraf said, though he added that the two countries should sort issues "with seriousness and in a sensible manner and not create war hysteria".
On its part, New Delhi tried its best to keep Musharraf's visit subdued, unofficial, private and bereft of any symbolic interpretations, offering minimum security coverage and some diplomatic civilities, but no red carpet roll-out.
Indeed, India has reason to distrust the man who was the chief architect of the brief Kargil war in 1999 between the two neighbors.
Thus, requests for an audience with President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi were gently but firmly refused, and so was a wish to visit Ajmer, a holy city in Rajasthan state, on grounds of security.
Musharraf could perhaps have had an audience with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the two initiated the India-Pakistan peace process in 2004, but that too did not materialize due to the latter's ill health.
Musharraf's four-day visit was thus limited to attending a magazine conclave, another private meeting organized by an industry body, roaming around historical monuments such as the Qutab Minar and the Red Fort and praying at the Jama Masjid (mosque) and Nizamuddin shrine.
Yet, the 65-year-old general, in India to deliver a lecture on the invitation of a news magazine, used TV time and other occasions to speak about Kashmir, terrorism, Siachen, Kargil, the failed Agra summit and Indian Muslims in ways that can never be palatable here, but were lapped up by sections in Pakistan.
Speaking at the conclave, Musharraf said such interactions could help address the "trust deficit, misperceptions, distortions and lack of understanding and lack of information". He called for similar interactions in Pakistan.
Clearly playing to the galleries in Pakistan and perhaps an international audience, Musharraf claimed that the reason for the growth of terrorism was that Indian Muslims, a sizeable minority, had been alienated, particularly in Kashmir, even as Hindus continued to live peacefully in Pakistan.
He said that "lots of mujahideen" in Pakistani society and "freelance jihadis" had "emotional involvement" with the cause of Kashmiris and this has led to the formation of terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India accuses of orchestrating some of the worst terror strikes in the country, including the Mumbai attacks that left nearly 200 dead.
Predictably, such assertions evoked strong reactions.
"Indian Muslims are capable of solving their problems ... We don't need your advice. Don't try to alienate Indian Muslims by your remarks, here or in Pakistan," prominent Muslim leader Mehmood Madani retorted, which left the former president visibly nonplussed.
"The population of Muslims in India [154 million] is [almost] more than the total population of Pakistan [172 million]. You should know this," Madani said.
However, not to be cowed and finding form quickly, on another occasion Musharraf claimed that India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was aiding militants in Afghanistan to foment trouble, including terror attacks in Pakistan.
Islamabad has blamed RAW for the attacks on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, an assertion that has been dismissed as ludicrous by most, even in Pakistan.
New Delhi has for long blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as being hand-in-glove with terror groups.
"We have to accept the reality. Your RAW does exactly what the ISI does. My request is to let us tackle RAW and ISI to stop this confrontation," he said.
Musharraf mocked India's long-time request that Pakistan hand over Indian underworld don and terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, suspected to be in hiding in Karachi in Pakistan at times.
Initially, refuting that he knew of the whereabouts of Dawood, Musharraf said that even if the gangster were handed over to India, it would not change matters between the two countries and terror strikes would continue until disputes around Kashmir were sorted.
Of particular interest was Musharraf's statement to a private TV channel that he was open to leading the country again if he could become a "useful" president.
"If someone offers, I will see whether I can play a role and then I will take the offer. I won't like to be a useless president," Musharraf said.
These thoughts hold some value as they were made in the wake of reports from Pakistan that army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani has ticked off President Asif Ali Zardari with regards to the fast deteriorating political and security situation in the country.
These reports follow Kiani's visit to America and indications that Washington might be open to a more active role by the army, especially to control brazen terror attacks in Pakistan.
Musharraf himself resigned as president due to partial pressure from America that Pakistan return to democracy.
Clearly, he is not walking away in a hurry.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist and WSN editor India. He can be reached at [email protected]