Just neighbours at lunch

Every visit by a Pakistan president need not be made into a momentous occasion

Written by Sanjaya Baru | Published: April 6, 2012 3:17:52 am

Every visit by a Pakistan president need not be made into a momentous occasion

“Doctor Saheb,if you and I decide,we can resolve all our disputes before lunch and then go back to watch the match!”

With those opening lines,Pakistan’s then-president,Pervez Musharraf,settled down in his sofa at New Delhi’s Hyderabad House seven Aprils ago. He and his host,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,had finished watching a bit of the cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds. The match,as everyone knew,was a ruse that was used to organise the meeting. Much like President Asif Ali Zardari’s pilgrimage to Ajmer this weekend.

“General Saheb,you are a soldier and much younger,” said Singh to Musharraf,“but you must allow for my age. I can only walk step by step.”

But they walked their talk. Over the next two years they outlined a roadmap for the resolution of the Kashmir issue based on Singh’s famous formulation that “borders cannot be changed,but they can be made irrelevant”.

No one expected that journey to reach this destination when it was first initiated. Musharraf and Singh first met in New York in September 2004 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The homework for this meeting was carefully done,so that Musharraf refrained from the standard annual reference to Kashmir and the UN resolutions in his address to the UNGA. Singh reciprocated the gesture by telling the UNGA that he “reaffirmed” India’s determination to carry forward the dialogue with Pakistan initiated by his predecessor,Atal Bihari Vajpayee,in January 2004 “to a purposeful and mutually acceptable conclusion”.

At the end of an hour’s one-on-one conversation in New York’s Roosevelt Hotel,the two came out of their room and informed their colleagues,including Indian foreign minister Natwar Singh and national security advisor J.N. Dixit,that they would meet the media. A press conference was hurriedly called and was delayed only because the hotel staff had to remove an “Exit” signboard in the corridor so that no photographer would get a shot of the two leaders under that sign!

Enough had happened in backroom talks between September 2004 and February 2005 for Musharraf to want to carry the conversation forward. He chose to speed up things by publicly expressing his desire to watch the India-Pakistan one-day cricket matches scheduled for that spring. Musharraf’s public solicitation of an invitation from India was met with stunning silence from New Delhi. After waiting for a couple of days,the Indian media became restive for a response. Several journalists called me to find out if the PM was aware of Musharraf’s stated desire and whether he would invite the Pakistan president to come watch a match. I walked into the PM’s room in South Block and sought an answer. “I have been advised that this is not a good time for a visit because the budget session is going on”,the PM told me. “The foreign ministry will inform Pakistan that the visit can take place sometime later.”

I asked the PM if he and his diplomatic advisors had considered what headline they would get the next morning — “Musharraf wants to go to India to watch a cricket match. India says no!” The PM laughed and asked,“So what do you think we should do? You realise if he visits India,it will not be just to watch a cricket match but for formal discussions”. True,but for now Musharraf was only seeking an invitation to watch a cricket match. I urged the PM to invite him for the match and let things take their own course. If there is a meeting,so be it! He agreed and I could see he was quite willing to invite Musharraf and continue their conversation from where it had left off in September 2004.

The PM picked up the phone and summoned foreign secretary Shyam Saran and national security advisor M.K. Narayanan. Within minutes they joined us. “Sanjaya says I must invite Musharraf”,he told his two senior aides who already appeared unhappy to find me present at such a hurriedly convened meeting with the PM. Both of them stared at me with total disapproval,as if to say,“who are you to poke your nose into such matters of high national importance”.

Both rejected my advice. In the meanwhile,we were joined by the PM’s principal secretary T.K.A. Nair and secretary in the PMO,Pulok Chatterjee. I explained to them the logic of my advice to the PM. Both Nair and Chatterjee agreed with me. The PM turned to Saran and asked him to draft a letter of invitation to Musharraf. The meeting ended.

I was asked not to breathe a word to the media till the diplomats did their job of deciding date and venue,and getting a formal acceptance of the PM’s invitation from Islamabad.

For two days,nothing was forthcoming and the media kept calling me seeking an answer: “Will the PM invite Musharraf?” I was told that both Saran and Narayanan were in discussions with state governments to figure out which match Musharraf would attend,the one in Visakhapatnam or the one in Kochi! I could not believe this. One evening,I went over to the PM’s house on Race Course Road and told him that the media would view this as an attempt to keep Musharraf away from New Delhi. He agreed and hinted at considerable resistance within the government to the idea of a Musharraf visit at that point in time. The main reason,it seemed,was the feeling that since Parliament would be in session,it would not be a good idea to schedule such a high profile visit.

I urged the PM to consider the idea of downplaying the importance of the visit by converting all visits of South Asian heads of government into routine ones. In Europe,heads of government travel to each other’s capitals without too much protocol. Why should there be a joint statement each time two South Asian heads of government meet? Why cannot such visits be made more routine?

The PM agreed. I could see that he was ready to invite Musharraf and the matter was getting delayed because of the usual bureaucratic processes and diplomatic protocol.

I suggested to him that he could use the opportunity provided the next morning in the Lok Sabha where he was scheduled to reply to the debate on the motion of thanks to the president’s address to Parliament. He immediately agreed,saying,“That is a good idea. But let me think about it”.

Next morning,I went to the Lok Sabha to hear him speak. He spoke at length for over half an hour,replying to all the points made by several members in the course of the debate. I waited anxiously to see what he would say when talking about foreign policy.

He went through the discussion on foreign policy as well,and finally when he came to the very end,he said: “Mr Speaker,sir,I am happy to inform the honourable members of the House that I have decided to invite President Musharraf to come to India to watch the cricket match between our two teams. It is my earnest desire that the people in our neighbouring country and their leaders should feel free to visit us whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match; be it to do some shopping; or be it to meet friends and family — India is proud to be an open society and an open economy. I do hope that President Musharraf and his family will enjoy their visit to our country.” My colleagues in the officer’s gallery,including the NSA,were stunned! Nair turned to me and winked. I walked out quietly and went into the PM’s room to see television splashing the “breaking news”.

That visit of Musharraf was the turning point in the bilateral dialogue. There have been many ups and downs in the relationship since then,and many more may lie ahead. However,the roadmap that Musharraf and Singh defined will be the one that will finally resolve the Kashmir issue.

While it is not clear if Zardari’s visit should be imbued with much expectation,considering his much weaker position within the Pakistani establishment compared to Musharraf’s in 2005,the more important point is the principle that Singh enunciated about such bilateral meetings. Each such meeting need not become a “summit” meeting. In fact,such meetings must become routine and regular so that they are drained of the avoidable drama.

Precisely for this reason,I was dismayed to find Singh say to the Indian media last month that he would visit Pakistan only when “something solid” would come out of such a visit.

This goes against his own principle of visiting neighbours “whenever one wishes to do so — be it to watch a cricket match; be it to do some shopping; or be it to meet friends and families”. Zardari has chosen a visit to Ajmer as a reason to be in New Delhi. The PM could choose a visit to his place of birth,the village Gah,as a good reason to go to Lahore,and maybe even Islamabad. Nothing need come out of such visits. No joint statement,no agreements,no “final solution”. But each such visit and the ensuing dialogue will make it easier for both governments to walk down the road that Singh and Musharraf defined.

A solution to the Kashmir issue and the “normalisation” of relations between the two neighbours may elude this generation of leaders,and for as long as terrorists and extremists from Pakistan target India,but a way forward has been defined — both for bilateral visits and the final solution.

The writer was media advisor to the prime minister from 2004-08

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