Now that Agra is well and truly over, at least in Pakistan, Atal Behari Vajpayee's return visit is looming on the horizon, with the UN General Assembly now coming into view in the middle distance. But where Pakistan sees a relatively straight and linear path ahead, India has developed what amounts to a web of options, with timelines generated by future actions crisscrossing each other, leaving as many options open as possible, keeping as many possibilities open, keeping as many doors ajar as possible, closing none, but opening none either.
Perhaps the symbol of this is the wide range of views expressed about Vajpayee at an informal session of journalists who had visited India with Gen Pervez Musharraf. Vajpayee is sincere about peace. Vajpayee is sincere about holding dialogue, but has no idea of what a possible solution could be. Vajpayee is facing serious opposition from his hardliners, spearheaded by L.K. Advani. Vajpayee is in cahoots with Advani. Vajpayee is setting up Musharraf for a second failed Summit, after which he will turn to the USA, and ask them to deliver on their promises to him, or to pressure Islamabad into accepting a deal on his terms.
No one said what probably approaches the truth: that all of the above are true. Vajpayee is both a statesman of almost visionary quality, and a hands-on political operator with an instinct for the jugular and a taste for blood. In Indian domestic politics, he is notorious, even among politicians, for keeping an escape through which he can resile on the most solemn of promises, and he is an accomplished intriguer, who has managed to walk a tightrope between keeping his party happy, cultivating an image much more moderate than he actually has, and keeping his coalition allies in line.
His relationship with Advani is typical of a parliamentary chief executive with a strong Number Two in his Cabinet. They work very well together for much of the time, and often exploit the perception of mutual tension in a good-cop, bad-cop routine, but they are also deadly antagonists. It was not easy to judge whether they were cooperating at Agra, just as they had done so often in the past to bamboozle regional parties, or whether there was indeed a strong difference, in which Vajpayee had to give in.
Because Vajpayee's real thoughts are so well concealed, and because he has not committed himself in any way, India's options remain open and complex. It explains things about Vajpayee's negotiating style at Agra, which the Pakistani side has still not wrapped its collective head around yet. His ready agreements with Musharraf, only to resile later on, indicate that he was not totally committed to what he had agreed, and was awaiting the reaction from Advani. In all probability, there was no conspiracy to 'trap' Musharraf in any way, but Vajpayee's mental caveats probably left him prepared not to reach an agreement.
Pakistan's strategy is clear. It sets out a four-step process, though it has to be recognised that it is more open-ended than this sounds. It might be best described as a step-by-step process, in which future steps are not even discussed until the previous ones are not achieved. Step One, the beginning of dialogue, has been achieved. Step Two, the acceptance of Kashmir's centrality, was to have been achieved at Agra. Step Three, deciding on solutions (by a process of eliminating whatever is unacceptable to either side, and then working on what is left), and Step Four, setting up a timeframe for implementation, are far in the future.
However, the idea of quarterly talks on Kashmir at the secretarial, six-monthly at the ministerial and annually at the Summit level, clearly contemplates a prolonged process of negotiation, meaning that the timeframe for implementation recedes well into the future. Optimistically, the process will require three to five years to yield a tangible result.
India has gone ahead with Step One, but is balking at Step Two, knowing that it will lead to Step Three. There, it seems, Musharraf may have put them off by a key clarification. In Step Three, in Musharraf's mind, eliminating the unacceptable does not mean Pakistan accepting the Indian position that Kashmir be resolved within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. In fact, it means a quid pro quo, in which India abandons the 'atoot-ang' position while Pakistan gives up the UN Resolution. It may seem self-evident that this is the only route to some kind of solution, but at the moment, it still seems an impossible leap for both sides.
Again, as far as the leadership question goes, Pakistan's position is clearer than India's. Musharraf is here for the long haul, and therefore India can count on negotiating with him for some time. It is possible that he preside over the entire process. At the other end, it is unlikely that Vajpayee, who turns 77 this year, will last out the whole process. He is probably going to step down at the end of his term in 2004, and may step down earlier for health reasons. His recent resignation offer was a shrewd tactical move, but may also reflect a growing distaste, or at least loss of pleasure, from the job.
The race is on for his succession. Advani leads the pack within the BJP, and in an emergency like Vajpayee's sudden death or incapacity, would probably take over. However, whether he could last is another matter. The BJP's coalition partners are terrified of him, and he may be passed over. The NDA would probably find either former Defence Minister George Fernandes or Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu preferable, but the BJP would insist on naming its own man as PM. That basically leaves Jaswant Singh.
Interestingly, of the trio, Musharraf respects Vajpayee, while Advani seems to have got under his skin somewhat, but he appears pleasantly surprised by Major (retd) Jaswant Singh. He might find him easier to deal with, though Jaswant would probably a weak PM, and thus not so willing to take risks. There is an eerie parallel, with the failure of I.K. Gujral to progress after the initial composite-dialogue breakthrough. His perceived liberalism and rapport with Nawaz Sharif availed nothing in the face of his being the compromise PM of a minority government. Jaswant too might find it nearly impossible to make a deal for the same reasons?
So who can do a deal? Benazir couldn't because she was 'soft'. Her rightist nemesis, Nawaz, could deliver, went the conventional wisdom. But then he couldn't deliver the Army. On the Indian side, Gujral couldn't deliver because of the BJP. Vajpayee could. But now it seems that Vajpayee certainly and Musharraf to an extent, can't deliver because of their hardliners. So who is left? Advani and Aziz? (Lt Gen Aziz Khan's beard and personal devoutness have unfairly led him to be labelled in the global media as leader of a non-existent fundamentalist faction in the Army, which might oppose a Kashmir settlement reached by Musharraf.)
Such deals are done by countries, not individuals. However, within the parameters of each other's national interests, Pakistan can probably do a deal more easily under military leadership than civilian. The reason reflects very little credit on Pakistan's armed forces, but it is a harsh fact of international relations. But in India, who can do a deal? Or more important, who will be willing?
One senior Indian journalist in Agra made a prediction: that the Kashmir issue would be solved, but by a 'rustic PM', a Laloo Prasad Yadav, a Ram Vilas Paswan, a Nitesh Kumar, even a Chandrababu Naidu (who, for all his hi-tech hype, is merely a regional leader). The journalist based his assessment on two factors. First, that the generation of 'national' leaders, with a focus on India's global and regional role, would pass away with Vajpayee. Second, the emerging set of leaders have regionalist roots, and are focused on local issues, at best national issues, and would prefer to get Kashmir settled, if necessary on throwaway terms, and focus on bread-and-butter issues.
Even Vajpayee, according to the journalist, once personally said to him what could he do so long as his northern frontier was disturbed. Of course, with Vajpayee, this might well be another reflection of a multiple-faceted personality, but it does indicate that an Indian PM less imbued with the traditional vision of Indian hegemony might consider making a deal not such a big deal.
Another hopeless article about Indo-Pak relations and Kashmir, published in Pakistan Newspaper, TheNation.