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The dinner that left a bitter aftertaste

Concerns are that Musharraf has got US backing in his bid to extract concessions from India, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2005 12:55 IST

On Thursday afternoon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dropped in to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his hotel in New York. Rice's agenda was wide-ranging: to discuss the whole gamut of India-US relations and to ascertain India's position on the Iran issue.

But once these issues were out of the way, she made an unusual request. Could India please do something to help General Musharraf? The General needed something to convince his people back in Pakistan that the peace process had yielded results. He needed to take back a concrete concession by India — perhaps on the withdrawal of some troops from Kashmir.

Dr Manmohan Singh was polite but explained to the US Secretary of State that such concessions were only possible when India was convinced that Pakistan has stopped assisting cross-border terrorists. Nevertheless, Rice's plea had the effect of annoying Indian officials.

While India has tried to stop defining its foreign policy in terms of Pakistan and therefore, did not mind that President Bush hosted a dinner for Musharraf (Manmohan met Bush at the Waldorf Astoria but there was no attempt to turn the encounter into an occasion), there has been considerable disquiet over what is clearly a change of stance for the General. And there are concerns that he has got Washington to back him in his latest bid to extract concessions from India.

The shift in the General's position took the Indian delegation by surprise. Before the visit began, intelligence reports, the progress of back-channel diplomacy and assessments by our mission in Islamabad suggested that the General was content with the state of India-Pakistan relations and the pace of negotiations.

Then, Musharraf's speech at the General Assembly shattered this view. Last year, the General had made a non-controversial speech. But this year, he was back to talking about the 'core issue' of Kashmir and comparing it to Palestine. Before the speech, there has been another minor incident. Manmohan Singh's Media Advisor, Sanjaya Baru, had gone on TV to announce, somewhat gratuitously, that the Indian PM had told President Bush that Pakistan was encouraging cross-border terrorism. The Pakistanis had responded by publicly demanding troop withdrawals from Kashmir.

Even so, these skirmishes between officials did nothing to prepare the delegation for Musharraf's sabre-rattling speech. On Wednesday evening, Manmohan Singh held a crisis meeting in his suite which was attended by Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. The men studied Musharraf's speech and then looked at the speech he had delivered at last year's General Assembly. There was no doubt that the tone was radically different — something that Narayanan's back-channel diplomacy had not led him to expect.

None of this augured well for the small dinner that Manmohan Singh was hosting for the General at his hotel later in the evening. The Prime Minister decided that he would confront Musharraf over the change of stance.

When the General arrived for dinner, he was full of bluff and bluster. Asked about the change in his position, he denied there had been any change. The Indians offered to show him the two speeches — last year's and this year's — and Musharraf finally conceded that he might have sounded more strident this year. But this was only because some speech-writer might have got carried away. If the Indians liked, he would issue a clarification.

This statement mystified the delegation. Could the President of Pakistan really not have noticed that his speech was so strident?

The doubts were cleared up when Musharraf suddenly began making a series of demands. Why was the Indian government refusing to let Mehbooba Mufti visit Pakistan? On the contrary, said Dr Singh. It was Pakistan that had refused her a visa when she had wanted to travel on the bus. She could go to Pakistan any time she liked, as far as New Delhi was concerned.

What about withdrawing some troops from Kashmir, then? Well, said Dr Singh, some troops had already been withdrawn. That was not very convincing, responded Musharraf. The troops had only been shifted to nearby bases. They could be sent back to Kashmir whenever India wanted.

The Indians protested that once troops had been withdrawn, it was hardly Musharraf's business where they were now stationed. No, said the General, he wanted to see more withdrawals.

Manmohan Singh restated India's position. Infiltration had gone down but violence in the Valley was up. Intelligence reports suggested that 31 terrorist training camps still functioned in Pakistan. Unless these were dismantled and the violence went down, no sensible government could afford to withdraw troops.

The General argued that all the terror camps had been dismantled and that about five camps for rehabilitation were all that remained. As for the violence, this was caused by militants who were already inside Kashmir, so there was nothing he could do. The Indians were just being stubborn.

As this debate raged, Musharraf cut to the chase. It would do very well to talk about the bus, about trade, about people-to-people contacts, about Sir Creek and about Siachen. But as far as Pakistan was concerned, the peace process would go nowhere unless India agreed to major concessions on Kashmir.

So, what did Manmohan Singh really want? What was the ultimate objective of these talks from the Indian perspective?

The nonplussed Indian delegation repeated India's position. Manmohan Singh did not have a mandate to redraw India's border. No Indian Prime Minister would get such a mandate in the foreseeable future. The purpose of the peace process was to change the mindset of people on both sides of the border so that some solution was possible. Surely, Musharraf knew all this? Manmohan Singh had explained it to him at last year's General Assembly.

But the General was unrelenting. His people were getting impatient, he said. They needed something concrete. Couldn't the Indians give him something to take back?

And so it went for three hours. The General was, in turn, hostile and petulant. And though the Indians tried to be patient, they were clearly baffled by the turn the relationship had taken.

Eventually, with the talks going nowhere, they moved to the dinner table. After an initial stiffness, Musharraf finally relaxed a little and talked about cricket and his children. He is believed to have also assured Manmohan Singh that while he is convinced that Sarabjit Singh is guilty, he will not let him hang.

All this elevated the mood somewhat but by the time dinner was over, the Indians had a new problem. Around 75 journalists had been invited to the hotel for a post-dinner briefing. It was not clear, however, what the two leaders could tell the press. A joint statement — bland and careful to blur the differences — was drafted by Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Pakistan's ambassador to the UN and prepared for distribution.

The press conference, though, was a fiasco. The two men read out the bland statement. Musharraf answered one question but Manmohan Singh seemed unwilling to say very much, departing after giving half an answer.

The journalists, who had been kept waiting for four hours, reckoned this was not good enough. Though it was now late in the night in New York, it was daytime in India and the TV channels needed instant responses.

The Indian side then made yet another fatal error of media management. Rather than try and organise some damage control, the PMO decided it had nothing to say, told the journalists to go home and said that there would be a briefing by Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran the next morning —- or several hours later.

Inevitably, the journos headed for the Roosevelt Hotel where the Pakistanis were based. The Pakistani delegation's media management is vastly superior to the Indian variety and so Pakistani media mangers were happy to offer a blow-by-blow account of the dinner, casting Musharraf as the decent man who wanted demilitarisation while the Indians came off as slippery and unwilling to concede anything.

While the Indian delegation slept, it was this characterisation of the dinner — as another Agra-type fiasco — that reached the subcontinent, severely denting Manmohan Singh's image as a successful peacemaker and seemingly confirming A.B. Vajpayee's reservations about the prospects of this particular peace process.

Now, as the Indian delegation scrambles to come up with some answers, there is still mystification over the General's sudden turnaround. Clearly, there was a complete failure of intelligence because R&AW and the rest of the national security apparatus had not predicted how Musharraf would behave.

The consensus that seems to be emerging is that the General has been pushed into a tighter corner domestically than the Indian side recognised. His room for manoeuvre is limited and he needs desperately to appease his domestic constituency. Moreover, his American mentors are also worried about his survival and therefore want India to make some gesture that he can take back to this people.

But what can India give him? Foreign Minister Natwar Singh is due to visit Pakistan in early October when the discussions will progress. But Manmohan Singh knows that any decision to pull more troops out of J&K will be attacked by the BJP as succumbing to pressure — and this was explained to Condoleezza Rice.

The Indian delegation says — in Shyam Saran phrase at his press briefing — that negotiating peace is a process and not an event. Yes, domestic pressure may force a cornered Musharraf to react petulantly and unreasonably but such pressure can ease. Moreover, all of India's dealings with the General have convinced policy-makers that it is unwise to read too much into a single encounter.

The General Assembly speech, Indian officials believe, was meant solely for a domestic Pakistani audience. The petulance at dinner was because Musharraf wanted to prepare the ground for American pressure on India to offer some concessions.

But unlike Agra — which was an event and not part of a process — Wednesday's dinner is not seen as a major setback. There will, say Indian officials, always be some roadblocks along the way to peace and the General is essentially a shrewd political survivor who makes up his policy as he goes along. If this gambit does not work — and it probably won't — he will simply think of something else.

So, India is disappointed and a little peeved. But nobody is at all pessimistic.

First Published: Oct 29, 2005 12:55 IST