May 2003 News

Vajpayee Bets His Last Shirt On Kashmir

30 May 2003
Asia Times Online
Sultan Shahin

New Delhi: Famous as much for beating retreat as for his bold moves on the chessboard of Indian politics, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to go for broke. He will either establish peace with Pakistan, even if it means 'serious compromises' on Kashmir, or retire from politics, he said on Wednesday. Declaring that he would 'retire and accept defeat' if his current peace initiative with Pakistan fails, Vajpayee has said he is prepared to enter into negotiations with President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and even make 'serious compromises' on Kashmir provided the latter creates the ground for mutual confidence. His remarks were made in an interview to German publication Der Spiegel during his present tour of Germany, France and Russia, the three countries that opposed the recent US invasion and occupation of Iraq. His statement appears to have generated the right atmospherics in Berlin at a time when the world's attention is focused on the unfolding India-Pakistan peace process. His reported remarks on Western double standards on terrorism have also caught US attention, particularly because of the nature and timing of his itinerary. Vajpayee's do-or-die statement on Kashmir may be as much a forecast of things to come as a threat to his hardline Hindu fundamentalist colleagues in the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and their alma mater, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), who are seen as inimical to his peace agenda, though they, too, have expressed solidarity with him on this issue publicly. Extending full support to him, the leader of the opposition and Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, too, focused on Vajpayee's dilemma: 'You have our support; but the real question is whether the prime minister has the support of his allies, the full backing of his cabinet and party colleagues and his own ideological brotherhood.' The 25-party coalition government led by the BJP is as dependent on his leadership even today, Vajpayee believes, as when the coalition was formed five years ago. It has still a year to go in its present five-year term, though there are widespread rumors about early general elections. The threat to retire is thus obviously directed at his own party, which is planning to focus on his personality in the next elections, with nothing to show by way of achievement in its rule to date. It also lends credence to the charge that the Agra summit with Musharraf two years ago was scuttled at the last minute by his own hardline colleagues, though an agreement had already been initialed by the two principals. Vajpayee would obviously like to go into the next elections with a solution of the Kashmir problem under his belt. War or peace with Pakistan is as much a domestic as a foreign-policy issue for India. Though led by a 'dove', the BJP is believed to be as much anti- Pakistan, a neighboring country with 150 million Muslims, as anti- Muslim within India, a country with the world's second-largest - an estimated 180 million - Muslim population. Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, administered in part by both countries, has been a bone of contention since independence from the British in 1947. Ironically, while it was British colonial policies that led to partition of India at the time of independence, it is fear of US neo-colonialism after Iraq that is said to be bringing the two countries together to sort out their mutual differences and not allow the world's sole superpower to increase its influence in the region. The United States has repeatedly denied colonial ambitions, saying that it does not consider Kashmir as another Iraq. But Vajpayee justified his recent initiative on Kashmir in a recent public speech in Srinagar on grounds of the changed international situation after the Anglo- American occupation of Iraq. The need for unity in South Asia is being felt so strongly at the highest level in India in the wake of a perceived Anglo-American neo-colonialist onslaught that senior leaders have begun talking of a South Asian union. Speaking at a recent seminar, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, for instance, said, 'The possibility of a South Asian union is very real.' Even more important, the deputy prime minister and the real strongman of the BJP, Lal Krishan Advani, had floated the idea of forming an 'Indo-Pak confederation' earlier. He said it was 'difficult but not impossible'. People might find the idea 'unrealistic', particularly when it was being mooted by a home minister who had been talking of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and war with that country. But there have been examples in the recent past where warring nations have come together. East and West Germany ended their decades-long enmity and united again; European nations, which had a long history of bloody battles among themselves, came together to form the European Union. 'Partition has done no good to either India or Pakistan. A day will come when both nations will come together to make a new beginning,' he added. Vajpayee has retreated so often in the face of his hardline colleagues that his initiatives are no longer taken very seriously. His government has earned a well-deserved nickname - the rollback government. But the vehemence of his recent statement, particularly as it follows his very public humiliation in this week's cabinet reshuffle in which he was not allowed to follow his publicly announced agenda, has made observers take notice and wonder if he does indeed mean business now. India has been here before. First prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru realized in his last days in 1963-64 that he would do well to leave a peace legacy and that it would probably be more difficult for later leaders to solve the complex Kashmir tangle. He sent Sheik Mohammad Abdullah, the redoubtable Kashmiri leader who had preferred to align Kashmir with secular India rather than Islamic Pakistan, to talk with the then president General Ayub Khan of Pakistan informally and find out whether there was ground for reconciliation. Abdullah succeeded in working out a solution to the Kashmir dispute, but while he was still there Nehru passed away. Eighty-three-year- old Vajpayee's health is not as fragile as was Nehru's at the time he decided to invest his personal prestige in finding a solution to the Kashmir tangle. But Vajpayee is politically less secure. On the other hand, there seems much more willingness in Pakistan for finding a solution and effecting a compromise. Even the clergy, which is for the first time tasting power in Pakistan, appears willing in view of the growing fear of the creeping Anglo-American neo-colonialism. The Pakistani army, too, has sought to allay fears that it might be a hurdle to the peace process. In fact, leaders of several militant groups said this week that the Pakistani government had given them until this Saturday to close down their offices, which often double as residences for senior members. 'There is a tremendous pressure from the Pakistani side to close offices,' said the leader of one outfit, who declined to be identified either by name or by group. Thus India-Pakistan talks have much better prospects of success now than at any time since Nehru's death. But is there a roadmap for the ensuing dialogue that the two parties can follow for quick progress, or do they need to invest their time first in talking about how to talk? Serious talks on Kashmir have taken place only once, that, too, under the pressure of Britain and the United States. The India-China border war in 1962 was followed by the most intense Anglo-US effort to untie the Kashmir knot. Both countries were under pressure. India was told that its capacity to help build its armed forces to face China would be directly related to its willingness to settle the Kashmir problem. Pakistan was told to help democratic India against communist China, but that the quantum of military assistance to India could be less if Pakistan showed readiness to move on the Kashmir issue. As India and Pakistan were seen to be making slow progress during the six rounds of ministerial talks between December 1962 and May 1963, the US and Britain decided to be more proactive. They agreed on what was called 'elements of a settlement' in April 1963 after intense discussions among themselves. There is a suggestion that these can now be revived, or can at least be talked about, though at that time India felt that the formula favored Pakistan more as it was handed over to Pakistan 10 days before it was given to India. These elements were the following: It is proposed that the following points, which are designed to encourage the parties to concentrate on the immediate questions at issue, should be put to the parties ... The British, through their High Commissioners, will concert, as appropriate, in the presentation and the subsequent discussion. 1. Neither India nor Pakistan can entirely give up its claim to the Kashmir Valley. Each must have a substantial position in the Vale. 2. India and Pakistan must both have assured access to and through the Vale for the defense of their positions to the north and east. These defense arrangements must be such as not to impede a disengagement of Indian and Pakistani forces. 3. Outside the Valley, the economic and strategic interests of the two countries should be recognized, eg, India's position in Ladakh and Pakistan's interest in the development of water storage facilities on the Chanab [river]. 4. The position of the two countries in the Valley must be such as to permit: (a) Clearly defined arrangements for sovereignty and for the maintenance of law and order. (b) Political freedom and some measure of local self-rule for the inhabitants. (c) Free movement of the people of the Valley throughout the Vale, and their relatively free movement to other parts of Kashmir and to India and Pakistan. (d) The rapid development by India and Pakistan of tourism in the Kashmir area - with the important foreign exchange potential for both countries. (e) The effective use in Kashmir of development funds, available from external sources, for such purposes as improving water and forestry resources, the development of communications and small industries, and improving the health and welfare of the people. To begin with, as former foreign secretary J N Dixit suggested on the eve of the Agra summit, it would be sufficient if India and Pakistan agreed on the following: a) They will continue to meet each other as and when necessary without extraneous political inhibitions. b) They will appoint a special envoy to discuss the Kashmir issue (assisted by advisors) on a continuous basis so as to evolve a solution. c) Alternatively, foreign ministers and foreign secretaries will meet regularly once in three or six months to continue a dialogue on Kashmir. d) A joint permanent experts group will be established to evolve mechanisms for nuclear risk reduction. e) They will initiate economic cooperation between India and Pakistan with particular focus on the energy sector (sale of power from Pakistan and the Iranian gas pipeline through Pakistan). India is praying that Vajpayee's present initiative doesn't meet either the fate of his earlier two initiatives - Lahore and Agra - or that of Nehru just before his death. If he can even show some progress on the issue of a settlement with Pakistan and cross-border infiltration is even reduced substantially in the last year left of his rule, Indian voters may be prepared to extend his tenure, even though his party has proved a disappointment on all other scores of governance.


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