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Walk the line

Both leaders seem much more willing to allow each other the space to perform politically in public, and talk business in private, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2006 06:01 IST

Risk is often without reward. And that’s precisely why it remains the mark of statesmanship.

So yes, India’s new embrace of Pakistan as a partner is fraught with the possibility of failure. It is like the naughtiest boy in school being made the class monitor; or a crook being enlisted to hunt down a criminal.

But that’s what leadership is all about: walking that wafer-thin line between fortitude and folly, knowing that you may stumble and fall. Those who stick to the script already know how the book ends; those who experiment and innovate can sometimes create both new beginnings and closures.

It is the difference between writing journals and making history.

No wonder then that to those of us travelling with the Prime Minister, he seemed suddenly liberated after Cuba: perhaps it was the satisfaction of breaking free from the mould and looking the future right in the eye. For once the quota conundrum, the sniping competitors within the Congress and the tug-of-war with the allies seemed very far away. When I asked him why he seemed more relaxed than he had in a long time, he was forthright. “I have reason to be happy,” he said, despite the storm that the joint statement had already created back home.

First, the myth: the Havana statement was “sudden” and “unexpected,” charge the critics.

Actually, it was neither.

Some foreign policy wonks seem to suggest that the savvy President of Pakistan seduced India into signing on the dotted line. They think we had gone to Cuba to break off the engagement, but then were so swept off our feet by the smooth-talking General that we ended up setting wedding dates instead.

The truth is much less romantic.

The seed for this joint statement was sown by India as far back as March this year, when Manmohan Singh proposed a “treaty of peace” during a public speech in Amritsar. If you pull out the text from the archives you will see that it was clearly the trailer for the blockbuster that has now hit our screens. It was here for the first time that the Prime Minister made references to “cooperative consultative mechanisms” between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir, “with the active encouragement of the governments of India and Pakistan”.

The opening gambit had been made. But then came a series of terror attacks, and India was forced to pull out of the game.

Then, in August this year, Pakistan’s outgoing High Commissioner, Aziz Ahmed Khan, insisted on a private meeting with the Prime Minister. When the aides had been shunted out of the room, he said now that the peace process had broken down, he was retiring a “disappointed man”. Wasn’t there anything he could do, he asked, to breathe new life into the deflated peace balloon? It was then that India put the anti-terror joint mechanism on the table.

That is the reality check: the Indians did not suddenly go all gooey-eyed and brain dead in Havana. The idea to fight terrorism jointly was, according to several senior officials, “entirely ours”.

We did not capitulate; we asked for this. We negotiated hard to include a reference to the Bombay blasts in the joint statement, but otherwise, everything went exactly according to plan.

So what has changed since last year when the two leaders met in New York? Those talks collapsed after President Musharraf made a reference to “self-determination for Kashmir” at the UN. It is still the same man with the same ideas, so why should Cuba be any different?

The answer to that is a measure of the maturity that is finally beginning to mark the relationship. This year, too, Pakistan’s President made a speech about Kashmir at Nam, but the Indian side did not break into hives. Perhaps it was because his rhetoric seemed more restrained and less shrill. But equally, those who sat in on the New York talks, exactly a year ago, are now willing to admit in private that India may have been “too aggressive” and that the General was so “taken aback that perhaps we too were somewhat at fault for thecollapse”.

India and Pakistan, it seems, are finally growing up.

Both leaders seem much more willing to allow each other the space to perform politically in public, and talk business in private.

And so, to the final question: what good can it do to ally with the antagonist? Well, for one, it may finally call Islamabad’s bluff. For months now, Pakistan has pointed to the assassination attempt on its President; the bombs that routinely rip through the heart of its commercial capital and the mad mullahs who have begun to infiltrate its civil society to make the argument that it, too, is a victim of terrorism.

Is this true?

We don’t know yet.

The riddle at the heart of the India-Pakistan relationship is this: can the General really control the fundamentalists or is Pakistan tumbling down a dangerous slippery slope? The anti-terror forum may be one way of finding out.

But there’s an even more compelling reason to move forward. It’s because the only other way is backwards.

Even the Prime Minister conceded that while not perfect, this was the “best choice in the circumstances”. His question for the BJP is: what other option does India have but war?

And war is not a one-day match, no matter what the armchair hooters may like to believe; especially not when it is fought between two nuclear powers.

There is one man who should know that better than most: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His bus ride to Lahore came after the war in Kargil; the Agra invitation to General Musharraf was made after a ceasefire that went horribly wrong and left hundreds dead in the Valley, his historic hand of friendship to Pakistan was offered as grenades erupted right outside the rally grounds.

He, of all people, should know what the Prime Minister means when he says “the fear of the unknown” cannot be cause to just stand still, or worse, turn back and walk away.

The complexities of the peace process may be hard to sell to the Indian voter; but the finality of life and death is about us all.

In the end, it is reason enough to keep moving forward.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV

First Published: Sep 23, 2006 03:36 IST