India visit: fact and fiction

Published November 27, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Nov 26: All the hype about Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's first visit to India may well have been an exercise in self-delusion.

The visit did not lead to any breakthrough on the bilateral front and, as expected, it did not bring the two countries any closer to a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

There was not even a joint press statement after the 90-minute Aziz-Manmohan meeting. There was merely a reiteration of intention on both sides to move ahead with the composite dialogue process. In other words, it was more about form than substance.

However, from Pakistan's perspective, the important aspect was the Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz conveyed to his counterpart in no uncertain terms that Pakistan was serious and sincere in taking the peace process forward but without continuing unilateral concessions, and that both sides must demonstrate flexibility even to move towards a result.

It is learnt that in his one-to-one meeting with the Indian premier on Wednesday, Mr Aziz did a lot of plain talking on the Kashmir issue. He told him that people in Pakistan were "confused and disappointed" by the signals emanating from Delhi.

According to insiders at the restricted-level talks, Mr Aziz also had about a 20- minute 'separate session' with Indian National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit who is involved in back-channel diplomacy with his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz.

Mr Aziz emphasized that Kashmiris were the third important stakeholder in the Kashmir dispute and could not be wished away, underscoring the need to involve them in the dialogue process.

His message to the Indian leadership and members of civil society throughout his visit to India was: sustainable improvement in Indo-Pak relations will depend on movement on Kashmir.

In a 90-minute interaction with editors and columnists of leading Indian newspapers in New Delhi, he said: "All dialogue must move in tandem, cherry-picking may not be the right way."

He made it clear that Indian demand for MFN status and reverse transit were out for the moment, and were linked to progress on Kashmir. Mr Aziz made no formal proposals on Kashmir but, as he put it himself, they "talked about the essence" of the options cited by President Musharraf last month.

The Indian leadership argued that it did not have the mandate to cede territory, that a more people-centric solution was needed that would allow maximum interaction of Kashmiris.

In other words, New Delhi seems to be suggesting equal autonomy to both sides of Kashmir and converting the Line of Control into a soft border so that Kashmiris can have free access to all parts of the disputed region.

Going by the signs so far, it is unlikely that Pakistan will make any formal proposals to India on Kashmir at this point. Perhaps it will only present proposals when it is convinced about a certain degree of flexibility in the Indian position.

Pakistan seems uncomfortable about putting the proposals on the table now because it fears that India will reject them. As for India, it would rather state what is not acceptable to it than float its own proposals.

Mr Aziz's first scheduled engagement in near Delhi shortly after arrival was a call on by Harkishan Singh Surjeet, head of the Communist Party of India (CPI-M). However, no one turned up at the scheduled hour.

When, after waiting for a while, the Pakistani protocol staff called to check what had happened, they were informed that the party leader had completely forgotten about it! Interestingly, only three days before the meeting, Mr Surjeet had sent names of six party members who would accompany him to the meeting.

This 'memory lapse' was seen as a move by the Congress leadership for its own projection - perhaps to ensure that Mr Natwar Singh was the first one to call on Mr Aziz and the Indian premier the first one to touch base with him over the telephone.

Curiously enough the scheduled CPI-M call on the PM was not reflected in the Indian programme booklet despite the fact that Pakistan had prior confirmation of it. However, the prime minister met the entire CPI leadership the following day at a reception hosted by High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan at Pakistan House.

Sonia's 'Hospitality': Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi did not call on Mr Aziz even though her foreign minister declared on his arrival that there was tremendous admiration and respect for Mr Aziz in India.

Pakistan had put in a request for it through the Indian Ministry of External Affairs well ahead of the PM's visit to India, but there was no confirmation till the day of his arrival in Delhi. The impression given was that it would materialize in the end.

However, on the eve of his departure from Delhi, it was finally conveyed to Pakistan that Ms Gandhi was "out of town". Notably, while the PM's India visit programme prepared by the Pakistani side reflected an 'expected' call by Ms Gandhi, the programme prepared by the Indian side did not mention it. This raised questions about whether it was an oversight or by design.

What appeared to baffle the Pakistanis was the fact that Ms Gandhi did not even make a 'welcome call' as a gesture of goodwill, particularly at a time when the two countries are trying to mend fences.

Indian officials insisted that it was not by design, and said they were mindful of the fact that when Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi visited Pakistan for the one-day Pakistan-India cricket match earlier this year, they were treated as state guests and given full protocol. The Congress Party was not even anywhere near the power corridors at that time.

In September, when Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri went to India for the foreign minister-level talks, she did not meet him either. The unconvincing explanation given by the Indians is that Ms Gandhi avoids such meetings because she does not want to give the impression that she is the leader and not Dr Manmohan Singh. Ms Gandhi met the outgoing US secretary of state Colin Powell when he visited India this year.

However, the Congress party leader's attitude was not too surprising for those who knew that initially the Indian officials had insisted that their chief of protocol would receive Mr Aziz on his arrival at Delhi airport.

The explanation given was that Mr Aziz would be travelling on a commercial flight, even though his aircraft was always scheduled to land at the Palam airport controlled by the Indian Air Force where commercial flights are not allowed to land.

Another reason given was that it was a 'working visit'. It was only after a protest at the diplomatic level that they first brought it up to the foreign secretary level, then minister of state for external affairs level and finally upgraded it to external affairs minister. A banquet proposed by the Indians in honour of Mr Aziz in Delhi was later converted into a lunch.

One of the positive aspects of the visit was that the Indian government did not make an issue of Mr Aziz's marathon session with all the key leaders of the All-Parties Hurriyet Conference (APHC) and there was acceptability of the interaction.

However, a section of the Indian media was not too happy about it and accused their government of turning a blind eye to it. Perhaps it resented the fact that the press had to be deployed outside Pakistan House well past midnight on a chilly winter night as the prime minister and the APHC leaders remained locked in discussions for almost five hours.

Mr Aziz also met the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Saeed and Kashmir's ruling People's Democratic Party president Ms Mehbooba Mufti at the lunch hosted in his honour by the Indian prime minister.



Accruing more debt
Updated 28 Sep, 2023

Accruing more debt

We are in midst of the worst, longest economic crisis because of lavish lifestyles of powerful interests.
Israeli normalisation
28 Sep, 2023

Israeli normalisation

OVER the past few weeks, there have been many reports prophesising the impending normalisation of ties between Saudi...
Kandhkot tragedy
28 Sep, 2023

Kandhkot tragedy

THE tragic incident that unfolded yesterday in Sindh’s Kandhkot tehsil, leading to the deaths of at least nine...
More desecration
Updated 27 Sep, 2023

More desecration

Attacks on the Islamic faith are not motivated by an attachment to free speech but by raw hatred.
Worrying remarks
27 Sep, 2023

Worrying remarks

THESE are ominous words from Gwadar. Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, chairman of the Gwadar Haq Do Tehreek, has warned ...
Justice or vendetta?
Updated 27 Sep, 2023

Justice or vendetta?

ONE wonders whether all pretence of the state as a democracy has been whittled down to a point where it has simply...