Jaw-jaw not war-war

Poor Pakistan. While a confident India sets the pace in South Asia, its economy growing by a galloping six per cent a year, its old rival Pakistan is saddled with a crippling $51 billion debt and a leader who has broken promises to inaugurate democracy and last week proclaimed himself president. Pakistani opposition figure Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, chief of the multi-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, called Musharraf’s move “a national tragedy.” Under these unfortunate circumstances, President General Parvez Musharraf is to visit India for talks.

The omens for Pakistan are bad. First, the finances. This week, the extent of Pakistan’s financial woes became plain. Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz pledged to freeze defence spending in 2002. The move aims to mollify international lenders and persuade them to reschedule future interest payments. This is a perilous step in a country which is a nuclear power, has a budding defence industry and whose president’s position depends on the favour of the army.

Next, the general. Every now and then, a Pakistani general usurps power by force only to declare himself president some time later. The pattern is predictable. With each new dictator comes a new bunch of cronies, helping themselves to plum jobs in return for facilitating the leader’s iron rule. Meanwhile public enterprises go bankrupt. Pakistan’s most shameful tradition was started by General Ayyub Khan in 1960. General Yahya Khan in 1969 and General Zia Ul-Haq in 1978 continued the trend. Last week, Parvez Musharraf solemnly took the oath of office under the national provisional constitutional order: an order he devised himself and introduced after he illegally toppled the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. A new despot’s justification for such a coup can sometimes be original, at least. This one wasn’t. Musharraf claims to have strangled democracy so he can “handle the delicate upcoming negotiations with India.” As he does so, Pakistan’s chances of escaping the cycle of coup, counter-coup and corruption grow slimmer.

Still, India — the world’s largest democracy — has not balked at Musharraf’s illegal move. In mid-July, when the Pakistani potentate visits India, his hosts will roll out the red carpet and give him the 21 gun salute reserved for visiting heads of state. Indeed, India was the first country to officially recognise Musharraf as president of Pakistan, and the Indian ambassador in Islamabad attended Musharraf’s oath-taking ceremony.

On the face of it, India appears to be bending over backwards to accommodate Musharraf. Why? There are precedents: India traditionally prefers to negotiate with a strong ruler who has a tight grip on the armed forces, than with a weakling presiding over a precarious civil government who cannot take tough and binding decisions.

There is more. India hopes that, in spite of his past, Musharraf will deliver; that he is less in thrall to Pakistan’s various interest groups than an elected leader would be and may be able to move boldly. For India, there is an urgent need for a new policy framework for bilateral relations. India cannot stomach a long-term freeze in the current status quo in Kashmir. It is keen for regional stability to allow its economic development to flourish. The combustibility of Kashmir is too much of a variable.

But it will find solving the Kashmir problem difficult. The Indian government declared a unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir six months ago. The main Pakistan-backed separatist umbrella group in the Indian-run part of Kashmir, the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), rejected the cease-fire after the militant factions over-ruled the more moderate tendencies. Over 250 have died from violence since Delhi abandoned the cease-fire in May.

For India, bilateral talks are especially urgent. New Delhi, which in the past has refused to internationalise the Kashmir question, wants to keep third party mediators such as the United States out. As the stronger party vis-é-vis Pakistan, it wants to exploit its negotiating advantage before powers like the US, with its eye on stemming nuclear proliferation, interfere to level the playing field.

In general, India hopes Musharraf is strong enough to rein in the militants, while Pakistan stays weak enough to pressure. So New Delhi regards Musharraf as a good potential partner. This is quite a volte-face. After Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, India and Pakistan appeared to be on an unstoppable collision course. Musharraf was behind the 1999 Kargil campaign which saw heavily armed infiltrators slip through the border that separates Indian- administered Kashmir from Azad Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. But in politics a few years is a long time.

But forces may arise that stop Musharraf being as accommodating as India hopes. He is obliged to retain vociferous anti-India stalwarts like General Javed Nasir, a former Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) chief, as aides. And the Kashmir problem has defeated many a general before Musharraf. This time it may be no different.

But despite these problems; despite Musharraf’s assumption of autocratic power; despite a pitted road on the way to accord, India will welcome the new dictator with all the fanfare reserved for a head of state next month. The talks are crucial for regional stability containing the potentially deadly Kashmir problem. “Keep the conversation going, one word leading to another,” sang the celebrated Urdu poet Sardar Jafri. India and Pakistan are about to take the bard’s counsel to heart. Let’s hope their talks have a touch of metre and rhyme to them, and don’t degenerate into discordant doggerel.