IT was during a public rally in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to commemorate the centenary of the birth of INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose, when the presiding minister Pranab Mukherjee thoughtlessly referred to the death of Netaji in a fatal plane crash in 1945. Immediately there was a disruptive roar from members of the audience who demanded that he withdraw his remarks. "Netaji is not dead," they screamed. The situation was salvaged by Sujata Bose, Bose's grand-nephew, who placated the angry crowd by explaining that Netaji had not died: he had merely suffered a deathless end.
To millions of person who watched the recent summit at Agra and felt their shared hopes rise to a crescendo and then fall, the synchronized statements made the morning after by the Indian and the Pakistani foreign minister that the talks had in fact not failed revealed a similar refuge in euphemism. The Agra summit had not crash landed, they said; it too had suffered a deathless end.
The two leaders - Prime Minister Vajpayee and President General Musharraf - have now returned to their respective camps. The post-mortem on the deathless talks has begun. Who was responsible for the feeling for the feeling of disappointment that millions of viewers felt as they watched a dejected President Musharraf leave the Jaypee Palace Hotel at close to midnight on his way to the Agra airport? Was the draft agreement - twice approved by the two leaders - scuppered by an invisible hand? Was the impromptu press conference given by President Musharraf to the Indian media chiefs on Sunday morning sufficient justification for the Indian side to harden their stance during the subsequent negotiations? Was Information Minister Sushama Swaraj's omission of any reference to Kashmir when giving the initial briefing to the press, that would have set the tone for Indo-Pak press releases, an accident or a deliberate ploy? Who had emerged stronger from their Agra talks: Musharraf or Vajpayee?
On paper, President Musharraf appeared to be the victor. From the first moment he appeared on Indian television screens, his new audience analysed his every move for nuances and dissected his every word for meaning. Their camera lenses became microscopes. Despite the tension of being under such continuous scrutiny, President Musharraf displayed a new-found maturity in his new role. He conducted himself with a dignity that was not self-conscious and which converted his visit to the Rajghat to pay homage at Gandhi's samadhi into a moving act of conciliation.
His speech at the official banquet at the Rashtrapati Bhavan was heard with respect by his audience and witnessed from the walls by the ghosts of previous Indian leaders whose very intransigence had given him the opportunity to try to settle the spectres of their creation. He endeared himself to the Indian public by being natural, unaffected and direct. In a country with 325 local languages he spoke with a refreshingly straight tongue. Why then could not the 'villain of Kargil' become the uncontested victor at Agra?
One answer could be that Musharraf had hoped at Agra, perhaps over-ambitiously, to convert the kingdom. The entry in his diary of his one-to-one meetings with Vajpayee could with accuracy read: 'I again broached the subject of Kashmir. I told him that this was the propitious moment for settling this dispute, to bring peace to India and Pakistan. Vajpayee was an accepted leader in India and perhaps people in Pakistan would be prepared to listen to me too.
Such a coincidence might not occur again for a long time, so it would be a great pity if we were to lose that opportunity'. For further emphasis he might have added: 'Any thought that time would make Pakistan forget the need for an honourable and fair solution to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir was highly unrealistic. The whole country was united on this issue and no government in Pakistan could possibly forget the problem'. Does that sound plausible? Certainly. Does that sound familiar? Of course, for those were the very words President Ayub Khan used to persuade Prime Minister Nehru to settle the Kashmir issue during their second meeting in Murree on September 21, 1960.
According to a recent historian, Mushtaqur Rahman, "At this meeting, Ayub Khan raised the issue three times, but Nehru started looking towards the ceiling or outside the window. Once he went to sleep; he did not want to talk about Kashmir. Nehru's note of the meeting, left in the external affairs ministry, says that Ayub Khan raised the question of Kashmir, but that Nehru 'did not reply'."
Nor could he have done, no more than Vajpayee could have done thirty years later, for Kashmir defies such simplistic resolutions. Like the approaches to the Valley itself, the road to peace in Kashmir is tortuous and tiring. If President Musharraf had hoped that his Indian hosts would interpret the leanness of his negotiating team restricted to his foreign minister, foreign secretary and additional foreign secretary - as indicative of his intent to talk only about Kashmir, and only then about other issues widening into the 'composite dialogue' foreseen in the Lahore Declaration, his expectation was over-optimistic.
It is not inconceivable that the Indians knew that he would balance himself on the single point of Kashmir and therefore take the risk of allowing the Agra talks to stand or fall on that solitary issue. It is equally arguable that his military colleagues had sent him to Agra with that single point agenda knowing that it would not, even by accident, lead to a real meeting of minds.
If President Musharraf did take a calculated risk, it was to hold a press conference with India's media moghuls over breakfast. If his motive came through clearly, so did his sense of irritation at the tactics of the Indians. It is a time-worn approach. President Yahya Khan had used the same technique in his now famous press conference 'The President meets the Networks' held on August 4, 1971. Such diplomacy using the media as a battleground may qualify as the 'war by other means' envisaged by Premier Zhou Enlai. Its benefits are unquestioningly dramatic, but short-lived. Yahya Khan won that battle, but lost the war.
There are many today, including President Musharraf himself, who feel that one of the single successes of the Agra summit has been the personal rapport he was able to establish with Atal Behari Vajpayee as an individual. The Indian prime minister is an excellent speaker, and an even better listener. In fact, his secret weapon could be said to be his disarming capacity to listen.
Is it possible that during the privacy of the six or so hours of one-to-one talks between them, Premier Vajpayee encouraged President Musharraf to do most of talking, and by doing so succeeded in making his loquacious guest believe that he agreed with him? 'The wisdom of silent men is beyond proof, though proverbial in every language,' someone once wrote. 'What basis it has seems to consist in our assumption that anyone who has not spoken to the contrary must agree with us and is therefore, a fellow of infinite wisdom'.
"There are many who nourish the hope that at the United Nations in September, at the SAARC conference in Colombo, and at any further summit thereafter or before, that rapport sustains their personal relationship and provides strength to a bilateral dialogue between the two countries. The wisdom of silent men needs to prevail.
This article is an edited version of an article published with same name in Pakistan newspaper, TheDawn.