The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal ready for Pak talks, but...
- ...has the time already come'

Srinagar, April 18: Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee today appeared to indicate he was willing to go the extra mile to resume talks with Pakistan, but slipped in a rider that left doubts if there was any real change in Delhi’s stand.

“I am ready to talk both at home and abroad… but bloodshed must first stop,” Vajpayee said at a huge public rally at Sher-e-Kashmir stadium, the first by an Indian Prime Minister since militancy erupted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989.

India has so far insisted that it would not resume talks until cross-border terrorism stops. Today, Vajpayee did not mention infiltration. Still, it was not clear if the Prime Minister meant he was ready to meet General Pervez Musharraf now.

“India wants to live in peace with its neighbours. I went to Lahore with just that in mind but Kargil happened. Again, I invited General saab to Agra, hoping that the sight of the Taj Mahal would inspire us but that, too, did not happen. I am again ready to extend the hand of friendship provided there is reciprocity,” Vajpayee added.

If there was any ambiguity in Vajpayee’s statement, Pakistan did not believe so nor did his own party, the BJP. Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu said the BJP was opposed to talks with Islamabad.

“There is no question of talks as the time is not yet ripe till Islamabad stops encouraging militants,” Naidu said. “There is no question of any softness towards terrorist groups.”

Pakistan showed immediate “reciprocity”. “If they take one step, we are ready to take two steps,” information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed told Reuters.

The Hurriyat also appeared to collect the same signal, deciding late tonight to call off the two-day general strike it had called to coincide with Vajpayee’s visit.

As the Prime Minister appeared to publicly back chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s efforts for a new beginning in Kashmir, his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) went all out to mobilise supporters for the rally.

Roughly 20,000 people gathered despite the general strike call. The chief minister’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, is said to have worked tirelessly to mobilise the crowds.

But the Congress, a coalition partner, was conspicuous by its absence. Green PDP flags fluttered everywhere and the slogans were for Mufti, not for Vajpayee. “Neither grenades nor guns, only talks can resolve the problem,” PDP supporters shouted.

Vajpayee made it clear Mufti was the man to change Kashmir’s destiny and that the Centre was fully behind him. For the National Conference, which is supporting the government from outside, the lavish praise of Mufti must have struck a bitter chord.

Vajpayee said elections had brought a sea change in Kashmir and it was important that this opportunity is nurtured. “Mufti’s hands have to be strengthened. Together the state and the Centre will work for the future…. Knock on Delhi’s door whenever you want, the door will always be open,” he said.

“I know you have suffered a lot in the last few years, but Kashmir’s destiny will change… the weather is already changing and spring will come again.”

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