During the half an hour I got with the Prime minister, I could not talk more about the political scene. However, I have come back with the impression that the National Democratic Alliance, the ruling coalition, may part company with the Shiv Sena before long. Vajpayee's exasperation over the party was too clear to be missed.
SUMMITS have a devastating effect when they collapse. They evoke acrimony, recrimination, bitterness and all that. The one at Agra between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf nearly looked like following the same course. Accusations and counter-accusations had begun to be hurled in right earnest. Certain things were said or leaked out which should not have been done. Suddenly, there is summer. But now the atmosphere has changed. Things are looking up. It seems that both leaders remained calm when others panicked. Apparently, they were in touch and felt assured. Ministers and officials wanting to spoil things did not know anything.
"My contact with President Musharraf was never broken," Vajpayee told me during an informal chat a few days back in his bare office in the Parliament House. He said that they would be meeting in New York. The External Affairs Ministry and the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi did not know that the two were in contact. They had given me a contrary impression. They had said repeatedly that the meeting was not even on the cards. I was told that the two leaders would avoid each other by visiting New York for the UN session at different dates. "We would save them the embarrassment of running into each other," the officials from both sides said.
It is gratifying to know that the bureaucracy in both countries is not in the picture. Vajpayee and Musharraf are in touch directly. This may do away with the mindset, which has been the bane of India-Pakistan relations. Officials on both sides started a war of attrition from the day the partition took place. They have sustained it in one way or the other. Vajpayee was happy that Pakistan Commerce Minister Abdul Razaak brought an oral message from Musharraf. The minister also impressed the Prime Minister. My suspicion is that Foreign Ministry officials on both sides were at their old games and had ruled out the meeting. Had they had their way, it would not have probably taken place. Musharraf put an end to these machinations by sending an oral invitation through his Commerce Minister. Vajpayee accepted it then and there. The External Affairs Ministry was informed subsequently.
Now the foreign office is busy in a sterile exercise on whether the talks should be 'structured' or not. Why should they be? Both leaders discussed everything on earth at Agra. They spent most of the time on Kashmir because of Musharraf's compulsions. They will probably pick up where they left off. Form is not important, substance is.
"Did you believe that there was a chance of a breakthrough with Pakistan?" I asked the Prime Minister. He did not pause even for a second for the reply and said: "Yes." This is, indeed, a salutary development. After the failure at the summit, the two countries were getting back to the mood of hostility. People on both sides were downcast. They had expected some movement forward.
The news about another meeting in New York has revived their spirits. Their eyes are not fixed on New York. What it means is that people want the peace process to go through so that the outstanding problems, including Kashmir, become easy to solve. This time, on August 14, there were nearly 40,000 people at the Wagah-Amritsar border on the occasion of the retreat to declare their faith in people-to-people contact. The Prime Minister was somewhat worried over the killings in the valley. If they did not stop, things could take a turn for the worse, he feared. When Musharraf cracked the whip against fundamentalists, New Delhi was hopeful that cross-border terrorism would decrease.
There was appreciation when the Sind government arrested many jehadis and recovered a large quantity of illegal weapons from them. Then came an order from Islamabad to stop the action. The arrested were released and illegal weapons returned. Even the signboards for collection of funds were given back to them. Musharraf is apparently under pressure. He reportedly got worried when the jehadis said that they would take their protest to the streets throughout Pakistan and make their anger felt inside Kashmir. Perhaps Musharraf was also afraid of cross-border militancy getting a bigger push from the jehadis. Perhaps this was what Vajpayee had in mind when he told me that he was afraid that the large-scale killings might undo the scheme of things he was trying to pursue.
Whatever the developments, Vajpayee's faith in Musharraf's liberalism remains unshaken. He recalled how Musharraf had criticised at Agra the Pakistan fundamentalists who in the name of religion were exploiting the masses. Musharraf also criticised them for coming in the way of family planning to check the population growth.
Before Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah burst out in public against Vajpayee for promising fair elections in Kashmir, he had conveyed his protest to the Prime Minister. Farooq believed that Vajpayee's observations had sullied his reputation and that of his government. Vajpayee told me this.
The J and K chief minister's anger is not understandable. It is an open secret that but for the 1977 elections, the polls in the state have been rigged since independence. The centre was a party to it. Farooq would recall that the Kashmiri youth went to Pakistan for training and getting arms only when they lost faith in the ballot box. This happened in 1987 when they found that the polls were rigged once again.
I had the northeast in my mind when I asked the Prime Minister whether problems accumulating in the country would find an early solution. "Many more are cropping up," he said. "You must solve at least some of them during your tenure," I suggested. He fervently wished he could do so.
Discussing the northeast with Vajpayee last year, I had suggested that more money should be invested in that area. He had then said that the problem with the area was that there was too much money. This time my query was confined to the talks with the underground Nagas. He was all supporting of the dialogue going on between the government and Isak Muivah, secretary of the underground Naga outfit, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). The Prime Minister was hopeful that the underground would agree to the name of former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma as interlocutor in place of former Home Secretary K Padmanabaiah. I told him that they were reluctant to accept Sangma's name because they believed that for him Nagaland was a law and order problem. (Sangma has said in a statement that economic development is the key to the problem.) Vajpayee said he expected the underground Nagas to come round to accepting Sangma's name. How about one more interlocutor acceptable to both, I asked. The Prime Minister did not reply.
There is no doubt that the talks are stuck on Sangma's name. New Delhi presumes that the negotiations will be on the track again. But the information I have got from Amsterdam, where Muivah is staying, is that the name is not so important as the political baggage New Delhi is supposed to unwrap. Muivah wants to discuss "the instruments of governance," as he puts it. For New Delhi first thing comes first: Sangma as interlocutor.
During the half an hour I got with the Prime minister, I could not talk more about the political scene. However, I have come back with the impression that the National Democratic Alliance, the ruling coalition, may part company with the Shiv Sena before long. Vajpayee's exasperation over the party was too clear to be missed. One of his disappointments with the Shiv Sena was its attitude towards the cricket match with Pakistan. He attributed its cancellation to the party.
This article was published in DailyStar of Bangladesh. I am feeling like many more problems are surfacing during Vajpayee period. Naga, row with Bangladesh, Caste system and the biggest pain.. Kashmir. Why I donno.