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Monday, May 05, 2003

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PM's Pakistan initiative

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

THE more inscrutable a politician is the more successful he is liable to be in his dealings with his comrades and opponents, both within and outside his country. This axiom is more or less foolproof provided the inscrutability is informed by a high degree of intelligence. If the politician concerned, who enjoys both these qualities, also has been around for a long time, he becomes more or less unassailable in his position, his every move being an analyst's delight.

Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one such practising politician on the Indian scene, his pre-eminence being more or less protected and ensured by the fact that in no other political party presently operating in the country can one find a similar political animal. In fact, Mr Vajpayee has shown his true mettle as a politician in the way he has `used' the disparate NDA as also a hostile Sangh Parivar, the latter very appropriately having seen through the Prime Minister's `game' but which has, repeatedly, fallen in line, in a manner of speaking, in the interests of the survival of the BJP-led NDA Government — an element in the scenario which has been deliberately underscored by Mr Vajpayee himself.

It is against this background of Mr Vajpayee being an ace politician and statesman that his latest Pakistan initiative should be seen. Put simply, the all-important question is: What impelled the Prime Minister to make the move on April 18 when, to all intents and purposes, there has been no material change in Islamabad's policy and stance vis-a-vis Kashmir and on the issue of exporting terrorism to select places in India? Since Mr Vajpayee never does anything on a whim, he must have had definite reasons to launch the initiative which, in the course of the following two weeks, he has fleshed out as a major move of his political career (as he told the Rajya Sabha on Friday, "The third round of talks with Pakistan will be decisive and the last dialogue with that country in my lifetime," adding, "I am confident I will succeed"). To this correspondent, there are at least three reasons why he took off on his Pakistan `journey' all of a sudden — two of them being `tactical' in nature while the third is clearly `strategic' relating to long-term electoral prospects. The extent of the change in New Delhi's line on Pakistan can be adequately gauged from the fact that, just six months ago (in November), in the wake of the terrorist strike on the Raghunath temple in Jammu the New Delhi establishment had hardened its line vis-a-vis Islamabad, putting the blame for the spate of terrorist activity, mainly in Jammu and Kashmir, squarely on the neighbour.

Among others, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr L. K. Advani, named the Al Mansooran group, a front of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba, as being responsible for the massacre, saying in no uncertain terms that (as reported) "the attack was part of a deliberate design to create a communal divide in Kashmir". Firmly implicating Islamabad, Mr Advani said that the spate of terrorist violence in India could also be linked to its decision to release the Lashkar chief, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, one of the outfit's senior leaders having said soon afterwards that the militant organisation would "continue the jehad in Kashmir".

Further, in November itself, the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Mr Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, made it clear that as far as the Kashmir issue was concerned, "the desired objective of (finding a solution) to the Kashmir dispute can only be achieved through what is acceptable to the Kashmiri people". Earlier in the same month, Mr Vajpayee had himself reasserted the well-known Indian stand that "Till terrorist activities continue, dialogue (with Pakistan) will have no meaning". The External Affairs Minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, too had told a BBC interviewer that New Delhi would not return to the negotiating table unless (as reported) "there was a visible change in Islamabad's policy towards Delhi".

More recently (in February), following the expulsion of the Pakistani Deputy High Commissioner from Delhi, Mr Jalil Abbas Jilani, Mr Vajpayee said: "For us, the most disconcerting aspect of terrorism is that it is sponsored, supported and funded by Pakistan as a matter of state policy".

The first of the two tactical points utilised by Mr Vajpayee to launch his Pakistan initiative was to turn the nation's and his party's attention away from the damaging April 14 outburst of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch leader, Mr Dattopant Thengadi, in which the Sangh Parivar labour leader had drawn pointed attention to the Prime Minister's outburst last September — in which he had asked, "which son of a mother would think of selling his country?" in the context of the WTO and the Government's disinvestment policy — and said that history was replete with Jaichands and Mir Jafars, significantly adding, "we are not sure what a Government that forgets about Jaichand and Mir Jafar will end up doing next". More important was the fact that neither the RSS nor the BJP rushed to the defence of the Prime Minister, which could not but be construed as a severe blow to the position and prestige of the Prime Minister.

The second tactical point which Mr Vajpayee sought to make was to turn the tables on Islamabad in the wake of the Bush Administration's strong criticism (made just a few hours before the Prime Minister was to make his Srinagar statement) of Pakistan's failure to stop cross-border terrorism. Reports indicated that Washington expressed its "frustration and disappointment" and warned that in the event of Islamabad failing to take corrective action, the latter's ties with the US would be affected. For the Prime Minister, the Srinagar `olive branch', extended immediately after Washington made known its displeasure with Islamabad, would put even more pressure on Pakistan because it would show up New Delhi in a much more reasonable light in the eyes of the US, thus scoring a big point for India.

The third strategic reason for the `shift' in New Delhi's stance vis-a-vis Islamabad is the fact that the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections has, in a sense, begun and nothing would be better for the Prime Minister if he could tell the electorate at the hustings that he was making strenuous efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, something which no other Prime Minister has been able to do before. During the run-up to the last elections, Kargil had spoilt the `show' being staged by Mr Nawaz Sharif and Mr Vajpayee. But this time, the Pakistan military (which had staged Kargil) is itself in the saddle in Islamabad and may find it difficult to derail Mr Vajpayee strategic gameplan mainly because of pressure from Washington.

In all probability, Mr Vajpayee has read this and hopes that, this time around at least, his election-centric strategy will have a better chance of success provided of course wayward terrorist groups across the border do not upset the applecart, with or without the surreptitious connivance of Gen Pervez Musharraf and the diehard India-haters in his country.

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