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CE, Indian premier may not meet

November 25, 2001


NEW DELHI, Nov 24: Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was quoted on Saturday as raising hopes of a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf during a regional summit of South Asian countries in Kathmandu in January but diplomats cautioned that his deliberately measured words could yet mean just the opposite.

“If Saarc summit is held (in Kathmandu) and I go there and he (President Musharraf) comes there, then we could meet”, Mr Vajpayee told reporters in an informal chat at a luncheon in New Delhi.

Diplomats said there were far too many ifs in the tantalising sentence which, coupled with the domestic expediency for Mr Vajpayee to remain or be seen to remain at loggerheads with Pakistan for the time being, means that it is rather uncertain if he would really be meeting President Musharraf soon.

Well-placed diplomats spoke instead of the possibility of India sending President K.R. Narayanan to the January 4-6 summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in the Nepali capital. Saarc leaders have often used the ploy to avoid each other whenever it has suited them.

“There has been considerable thinking in the diplomatic circles on this issue and there is a growing belief that India may not send its prime minister to Kathmandu, and instead ask the president to represent the country,” one diplomat told Dawn.

Indian officials, speaking privately, said Mr Vajpayee was not too keen to meet Gen Musharraf in Kathmandu but he would wait until closer to the occasion to see if he could really avoid the visit. “His problem is that he has a bilateral commitment to visit Nepal as prime minister, something he does not wish to delay for too long,” one official said.

A Maoist assault on security officials on Friday could become a ruse for Delhi to wriggle out of the already delayed summit should it feel the need to give a plausible reason, diplomats said. In one of the worst Maoist strikes in Nepal, guerillas massacred 34 securitymen, including 11 personnel of the Royal Nepal Army, in a series of attacks across the Himalayan Kingdom, bringing to an end the four-month long ceasefire.

The 11 army personnel, including a major, and nine policemen, were killed and several injured in a major rebel assault on Friday night at an army command post in Dang district, 350 km west of Kathmandu, Minister of State for Home Devendra Raj Kandel said.

From Delhi’s point of view, Kathmandu is not the most secure of venues for the Saarc meeting since it was from here that suspected Muslim militants commandeered an Indian Airlines plane to force the release from Indian prison of Maulana Masood Azhar, a radical religious leader in 1999.

Most analysts agree that Mr Vajpayee’s problem with Gen Musharraf stems from his worries about a looming crucial election in Uttar Pradesh where the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party needs either a communal upsurge or a martial atmosphere to claw its way back to power.

It was for this reason that he had resisted pressure from Moscow, Washington and London during a recent tour of these capitals to hold a meeting with President Musharraf or begin official talks with Pakistan, analysts said.

A Saarc spokesman said earlier this week the two leaders of the nuclear-capable countries had confirmed their plans to participate in the January conference in the Nepali capital.

If the meeting takes place between the two men, it would be their first since a summit in July held in Agra ended in deadlock over Kashmir.

The Saarc summit was set for November 1999 but was postponed at India’s request after a military coup in Pakistan brought Musharraf to power.

The two leaders met for two days in Agra in July, but the summit collapsed over the five decade-old dispute in Kashmir. Indian opposition groups say there is no logic behind the continued standoff with Pakistan. “Whether it wishes or not, India will at some stage have to negotiate with Pakistan,” former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh said in Parliament this week, reflecting the main opposition Congress party’s stand.