General needs a rewrite - by Shekhar Gupta Back   Home  
APART from saving yourself the nightmare of getting stranded on a fogged out Delhi morning, now there is an added advantage in taking a flight westwards from Chennai instead. You fly right across the peninsula and over into the widest expanse of the Arabian Sea somewhere over the northern Malabar Coast.

There couldn’t be a better route to fly in these nervous times, avoiding all of the north-western Indian and indeed the Pakistani air space which may not be closed to Emirates but is still being watched by what must be the most edgy air-defence troops in the world, wondering when the next blip on the radar screen would actually be a bogey and when they might actually start to fire those missiles in anger, for the first time in their lives.

The inflight reading includes The Economist, which has the picture of a menacing Indian SAM launcher on the western front. A story in The Wall Street Journal talks about the Royal Air Force Hercules C-130, equipped with electronic counter measures, and specially flown for Tony Blair’s travels within the subcontinent, reporting four missile alerts. So best for people like us to stay out of harm’s way and prefer the southern expanse of the Arabian Sea over the troubled borderlands.

A good time also to be away, even if for a couple of days just when the subcontinent approaches what could be the most tense, most significant moment in its current history. We are now getting used to sudden events rather than the vision or the plans of any leaders or statesmen shaping our history.

September 11 was one such event, December 13 another and, unless he chooses to postpone the moment yet again, or deliver a lemon, General Musharraf’s speech to his nation later today can be another such event. It may be hasty yet to say it can be the turning point to war or de-escalation. But certainly, it is a moment that could propel us strongly towards peace or war and would influence the odds massively in the betting bazaar of Mumbai which has now shifted allegiance from cricket to war.

IF there is a class of people more excitable than television reporters it is obviously the US Congressmen. As if the networks speculating wildly on the likely contents of General Musharraf’s speech was not bad enough, the leader of the US congressional delegation has already made a public announcement that Musharraf’s speech would not only reduce tensions, it would also bring about a radical change (for the better) in Indo-Pak relationship over Kashmir.

Now in India that would have to be something like the general giving up Pakistan’s claims over Kashmir and irrespective of what the Congressmen say we are not about to believe that could happen some time soon. What the Congressman may have done with his breathless statement, instead, is to have the general send for a fresh supply of blue pencils. It is bad enough that his people might think he is cracking down on terrorists under pressure from India. It would be worse if the folklore grew that he had shown (even cleared) the draft with a delegation of American lawmakers. International media this morning is already playing up a Reuters story from Islamabad, quoting an anonymous Musharraf aide as saying, ‘‘he had wanted to move in a certain direction, but now he could be seen as acting under pressure’’ so the expectations from his speech should be moderated.

So you know who to blame if he does indeed deliver a repetitive litany of platitudes, if not a real lemon. Blame Senator Joseph Lieberman this time, not the excitable television reporter or the supine editor at the general’s breakfast table.

Nothing kills news faster in international affairs than premature hype and chances are that the Pakistani establishment’s immune system has already broken out in rashes. We saw hype kill the promise of a historic summit in Agra and, subsequently, the will-they-meet-will-they-not excitement blight New York and Kathmandu. Now Musharraf’s spokesmen are doing damage control even before he has said his piece by cautioning the world not to expect too much from it.

But can Musharraf really afford to deliver a nothing speech? A mere reiteration of his holy national position on Kashmir, to which Blair says Pakistan is entitled, and to the post-September 11 lines of comfort like ‘‘terrorism is an evil, we must join hands to root it out’’ and so on? If he does fall in that trap the rest of the world — particularly India — would draw the obvious conclusion. That it is not Musharraf but the dreaded old Establishment that still calls the shots in Pakistan and therefore it is too much to expect him to be able to make a real break from the past.

LET me, however, hazard a guess. While the hype would moderate whatever he had intended to say at the outset, it is unlikely that he will make a speech of mere pointless repetitions. Musharraf loves his job, his voice, the camera and, above all, he believes he has all the answers. Even at the breakfast meeting at Agra he made interesting points that marked a departure from the ossified Pakistani position on Kashmir (‘‘there can be many solutions’’, ‘‘let us rule out solutions that national consensus in the two countries won’t accept’’), though they were unfortunately lost in the din of his bluster over the ‘‘freedom struggle’’ in Kashmir.

On his return to Islamabad he stated categorically that third party mediation wasn’t required in the Indo-Pakistan dispute. And while he may have moderated that position since December 13, it showed he has the ability to go beyond the old policy formulations that are not merely etched but calligraphed in stone.

Unless he has lost too much of that control and cockiness that are his hallmark, the general is likely to say a few interesting things again. He could talk of how terrorism has actually harmed the cause of the ‘‘freedom struggle’’ in Kashmir and given Pakistan a bad name. He might accept Vajpayee’s offer to walk more than half the distance on a path to conciliation while at the same time warning India against ‘‘misadventure’’. He most likely will talk about the gains for Pakistan if it made the transition to a modern, tolerant, even democratic (!) society. But he certainly won’t do a mea culpa on terrorist activity inside India or make an unqualified promise to put an end to it forever.

He could, instead, make a more qualified proposition: Look where the roots of terrorism are. Let us negotiate a solution to remove these and we will meanwhile see what we can do to control terrorists. This is obviously not something that will satisfy India. It will be again seen as an invitation to talk with the pistol on your temple.

Is Musharraf then capable of displaying the degree of creativity and assertiveness in the face of this mounting pressure to do or say nothing that looks like submitting to Indian or American demands? For a man who has tempted fate often, and successfully so far, this will be a risk worth taking. He was lucky on October 9, 1999, when his plane landed at Karachi instead of Hyderabad (Sind), where Nawaz Sharif would have promptly arrested him. He took a genuine risk in dumping the Taliban and got away with it. Now he has to choose between two risks: sending out a clear, conciliatory message to India and baiting the hawks at home or belying the promise and the hype, making an inconsequential statement peppered with qualifications and driving the subcontinent closer to war.

BUT even if his speech turns out to be a provocation rather than a plea for moderation, how could a war actually begin? It won’t begin with yet another meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security deciding to carry out punitive attacks across the LoC to teach the Pakistanis a lesson. Nor would it begin with a meeting of the Pakistani corps commanders deciding to carry out pre-emptive attacks against India. Nothing pre-emptive is possible in today’s environment when the world’s fourth and fifth largest armies stand fully deployed, eyeball-to-eyeball and in the reddest of red alerts.

If a war has to begin even then it would perhaps be because some lonely gunner’s patience would run out along the LoC. Or the tension will get the better of a battalion comrade in Poonch, who will decide that another day’s routine firing is provocation enough for a local escalation that could snowball. Or, it could begin when an edgy radar controller would panic into mistaking a harmless airplane like this for a hostile one and pumping a missile into it. This is how nameless, aimless wars begin, when somebody gets tired of waiting. So, you now know why it is preferable to fly to Dubai from Chennai in these dangerous times.
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