Handshake with clenched fist
Powell dials amid dialogue buzz
Drama unfolds on and off stage
Calcutta Weather

 
 
HANDSHAKE WITH CLENCHED FIST 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
Kathmandu, Jan. 5: 

Pervez offers friendship, Atal accepts with rider

When a ramrod-straight Pervez Musharraf strode up and stretched out his “genuine and sincere hand of friendship” today in a dramatic replay of the Agra breakfast chutzpah, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had little option but to accept it with a wry smile.

But in Kathmandu, Vajpayee got the chance he never did in Agra to lay bare the bitterness of the twice-betrayed.

In an uncharacteristic burst, Vajpayee reminded Musharraf, soaking up every word just a few seats away, and the world, spellbound by the television spectacle, of Pakistan’s “rewards” to India -- Kargil, Kandahar, the Kashmir Assembly attack and now the assault on Parliament.

The blunt blast over, Vajpayee slipped back to his elder-statesman image, keeping alive the hope of a dialogue between India and Pakistan.

The stunning events unfolded with what an Indian official later described as the Pakistan President’s “grandstanding”.

“I extend a genuine and sincere hand of friendship to the Prime Minister of India,” Musharraf said, digressing from his prepared speech at the inaugural session of the 11th Saarc summit this morning. “Let us jointly embark on a journey for peace and progress in South Asia.”

He then pulled off the handshake coup in the full glare of the international media and leaders from the region.

When his turn came after three speakers, Vajpayee said Delhi was always for friendship and dialogue with Pakistan, but pointed out that experience had made it suspicious of Islamabad’s sincerity.

“I am glad that President Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to me. I have shaken his hand in your presence,” he said. “Now President Musharraf must follow this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan or any territory it controls today which enables terrorists to perpetrate mindless violence in India.”

Then came the candid cut. “I went to Lahore with a hand of friendship. We were rewarded by aggression in Kargil and hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu. I invited President Musharraf to Agra. We were rewarded with a terrorist attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and last month, on the Parliament of India,” Vajpayee said.

The Prime Minister’s decision to bring in the issue before Saarc was in itself unusual as Delhi has been maintaining that the forum should not be used to discuss bilateral and contentious issues.

Though his prepared speech mentioned terrorism, there was no reference to either Pakistan or the December 13 attack on Parliament. But he responded to the gesture from Pakistan in the way he felt most appropriate. “But we would be betraying the expectations of our people if we did not chart out a course towards satisfying the unfulfilled promises of our common South Asian destiny,” he said.

His remarks were later fleshed out by foreign minister Jaswant Singh. “We welcome the hand of friendship extended by Pakistan. But the gesture of friendship should be … accompanied by act of friendship.”

Singh was, however, quick to add that this was not a condition for resuming talks with Pakistan. “All that we are saying (is) that Islamabad has to give up sponsorship of terrorism as a tool of policy.”

Musharraf attempted a fine balancing act. He tried to assure his domestic audience that he was not making any compromise on Kashmir and at the same time tell the international community that he was sincere in fighting global terrorism and promoting peace.

“Pakistan itself has been a victim of terrorism. We abhor violence. We are determined to eliminate terrorism,” Musharraf said. But to reassure hardliners back home, he sought to draw a distinction between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters”.

Besides India’s insistence on more “concrete steps”, there was another message for Musharraf in Kathmandu – the collective voice of other Saarc leaders. Almost all of them pointed out that terrorism was a clear and present danger in South Asia.

   

 
 
POWELL DIALS AMID DIALOGUE BUZZ 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Kathmandu, Jan. 5: 
Having etched the parameters within which a dialogue with Pakistan could resume, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to stay away from this afternoon’s informal consultations and sent his foreign minister Jaswant Singh to represent the Indian team.

But if Vajpayee was trying to send out a signal by not being there, it did little to help scotch speculation that Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Abdus Sattar, used the opportunity to talk for around 45 minutes.

Fuelling the speculation, US secretary of state Colin Powell phoned Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at their hotels in Kathmandu. Powell was said to have made enquiries about the inaugural session of the Saarc summit. Indications suggest that Washington was trying to find ways and means of nudging the nuclear neighbours towards the talks table.

Powell’s call came at a time when the US is planning to send a peace envoy to both India and Pakistan – a proposal that has been frowned upon by Singh. If the US eventually sends an envoy, Delhi would find it difficult to dismiss interpretations that it tantamounts to third-party mediation.

Seeking to play down reports of a meeting between Singh and Sattar on the sidelines of the informal consultations, Indian officials pointed out that it was not mandatory for the Prime Minister to be there and, therefore, it was decided that Singh, along with foreign secretary Chokila Iyer, should be sent.

The six other heads of government, along with their aides, were, however, present at the parleys. The fact that Sattar missed out on a scheduled news conference later in the evening led many to believe that he did get a chance to have a tete-a-tete with Singh.

Officially, India maintained through a carefully worded statement that no “separate or substantive meeting” between the two sides was held.

The foreign office’s clarification was a little more categorical than that on Friday when The Telegraph said in an exclusive report that Singh and Sattar had conversed with each other for around 20 minutes on the previous day. The Indian foreign ministry was then non-committal, first saying “it was not aware of such a meeting” and then modifying it to “we don’t know” about the exchange.

The Pakistani side today gave indications that there was a meeting between the two foreign ministers in the afternoon. But on record, Pakistani officials maintained their ambiguity by saying that they were not aware of any such meeting.

Though there was no confirmation about the latest Singh-Sattar meeting, the body language between the two seemed more positive. They were seen sharing a joke while leaving the meeting room along with other leaders.

   

 
 
DRAMA UNFOLDS ON AND OFF STAGE 
 
 
FROM ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
Kathmandu, Jan. 5: 
Lights, camera, action. The actors were ready on the stage. The audience waited with bated breath for the play to start.

The audience watched, but not only at the international convention centre here where the Saarc summit began at 11 am. The world over, leaders, policymakers and people waited to watch every move, listen to every word and read their own meanings into what Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee would say and do.

While speeches by the other Saarc leaders went on as choric preludes, unrelated to the central drama, the play within the play was being scripted in the minds of two actors — and in the wings, where offstage actors were writing out the real script.

The lights and cameras focused on the Pakistani President as he began playing out his role from the unannounced script. And these shifted focus to Vajpayee for capturing the effect. The little stageplay of big effects began as Musharraf raised the curtain on it “before I step down”, as he said.

He then extended his handshake with Vajpayee to end his speech. Movement followed speech, as he walked up to the Indian Prime Minister before going back to his chair and shook the latter’s hand. The audience clapped in approval.

If it was the handshake the world thought would shake India and Pakistan back from the brink of war, Musharraf’s dramatics was only the beginning. Long and anxious moments would follow before the next act would show how the play progressed.

More interludes followed before Vajpayee took up from where Musharraf left the cue. The drama heightened as Vajpayee went briefly offstage in the course of Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s speech.

The camera and the lights now zoomed on the players in the wings — India’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra — who quickly scripted the next act.

The Indian Prime Minister kept his act for a climax, as it were. Only before he came to the end of his prepared speech, he sprang into his role from the script written offstage.

In a manner reminiscent of Antony’s famous “Brutus is an honourable man…,” he recalled the handshake on the stage and other handshakes — at Lahore and Agra — and then went on to hand his antagonist dumbing blows with references to the Kargil war, the Kandahar hijack and the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament.

The audience clapped again as he ended his speech and returned to his chair, without reciprocating the Pakistani President’s handshake dramatics. The sounds of India-Pakistan tension rang out loud over the clapping by the audience.

And those tension-filled sounds rung the curtain down on any residual hopes for this afternoon’s “informal discussions” that replaced the cancelled retreat. Symbolically, the retreat, too, happened in today’s stageplay — with India and Pakistan retreating into their hostile rhetoric.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum:24.8°C (-2)
Minimum: 13.7°C (+1)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 91%,
Minimum: 49%

Sunrise: 6.23 am

Sunset: 5.01 pm

Today

Partly cloudy sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 14°C
   
 

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