What is the importance of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Washington?
A series of developments have conditioned the evolution of Indo-US relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s economic liberalisation, the Pokharan tests, all coinciding with the extraordinary energy being demonstrated by the Indian diaspora.
The mushrooming of 28,000 Indian millionaires in Silicon valley or the comparable vigour of Indian entrepreneurs along route 128 in Boston must not limit our focus on the Indians in the US. The Indian miracle is happening everywhere in this country.
There is no better way to enter the American mainstream than through its political processes. And the US elections have coincided with the peaking of the US Indian’s economic might. The result is that fund raising dinners are being organised with such frequency that curry is the most likely staple on which the two candidates are surviving. Little wonder that the theme most likely to be publicly aired by the Americans is economically strong Indians as a bridge to accelerate economic and technical cooperation with India.
But surely such a theme by itself does not justify a prime ministerial visit. The theme can be an important component of a tidy package. The shape and substance of this package is less than clear at this stage.
Let me explain my point. In recent months, every time I have visited Washington the pointmen at the Department of State dealing with India were Strobe Talbott and Karl Inderfurth. That was the phase when the Jaswant Singh-Madeleine Albright duo seemed to be navigating Indo-US ties. The two countries were among the co-convenors of the conference on the community of democracies held in June in Warsaw.
On current showing, I find neither Albright nor Talbott involved in what Americans call the “nitty gritty” of the Vajpayee visit. Most conversant with the details are Tom Pickering and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
Considering that Pickering has been involved in President Clinton’s telephonic conversations and correspondence with Prime Minister Vajpayee as well as Gen. Pervez Musharraf, how the Indo-Pak theme and the Kashmir issue will be played out in the talks is being fine tuned by him.
It is clear that the Americans have put considerable pressure on Islamabad. Washington sees some gains from this - greatly reduced firing across the line of control and the recent ceasefire announced by the Hizbul Mujahideen
The subsequent massacre of pilgrims in Kashmir and the abrupt withdrawal of the ceasefire offer are all seen as symptoms of the extremist elements around Gen. Musharraf throwing the spanner in any peace process.
Discussions proceed on the following lines. Gen. Musharraf is a prisoner of extremist elements in the army and the ISI, who have links with the United Jehad Council, the apex body which controls 16 militant groups operating in Kashmir. Just as he and his cohorts scuttled Lahore, the extremists behind him will scuttle any peace move he sanctifies. Should he persist on the path of peace, he himself will be sacrificed.
It follows, therefore, that Gen. Musharraf’s capacity to embark on a path of moderation is not only restricted but almost absent. With every passing day, it is not Musharraf’s grip on the nation that grows but the Mullah’s grip on him. “That is why it is so important to strike a deal with him, before more extremist elements take over,” says Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia.
But if Musharraf extends a hand of peace to India, his extremists will chop that hand. So where do we go from here?
At this stage what the Americans seem to imply is this: if an embattled Musharraf is prepared to give an inch a much more relaxed Vajpayee should be able to reciprocate with a yard. What does this “yard” imply in real terms? To accept the Hurriyat suggestion that they talk alternately to New Delhi and Islamabad?
A sense of deja vu is inevitable. Remember when the Soviets were in Afghanistan? Islamabad had to be supported because it was the frontline state. Later Pakistan had to be helped or they would go nuclear. Then they had to be helped in Benazir Bhutto’s days or extremists would take over. And now that extremists have taken over, however indirectly, the argument is that the regime in Islamabad must be engaged or power will slip into even more extremist hands.
This, then, is the trickiest of all the issues the prime minister will be faced with in Washington. The rest is all very cheerful economic agenda, the burgeoning Indian diaspora causing the White House to consider a banquet for 350 guests in a shamiana as opposed to the normal 150 guests that the banquet hall can accommodate.
Writer Saeed Naqvi is a columist for Indian Express Daily. This article is published in September 01, 2000 issue of the Indian Express daily.