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TEEING FOR PEACE
- Informal parleys made SAARC successful

Golf, it can safely be said at the conclusion of the 12th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is now a vital element in the conceptualization and execution of Indian diplomacy. A little known aspect of the diplomacy which preceded the visit of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Islamabad is the chats which the Indian high commissioner, Shiv Shankar Menon, and General Pervez Musharraf had at the Islamabad Golf Club since Menon moved from Beijing to the Pakistani capital some six months ago.

Golf allowed the two men to talk without being hamstrung either by protocol or by the presence of cautious, baggage-ridden foreign ministry officials in Islamabad. These chats helped each of them to figure out what the other thought about what lay ahead for south Asia after Vajpayee’s surprise initiative in Srinagar last April to attempt peace with Pakistan once again.

Of course, this is not the first time that golf has played its part in catapulting India’s vital interests to the realm of the possible. After the 1998 nuclear tests, when even New Delhi’s paid lobbyists in Washington had written off India, the diplomatic ice with the Americans was broken on the putting green between T.P. Sreenivasan, then India’s deputy chief of mission in the capital of the United States of America, and Thomas Pickering, who was the equivalent of foreign secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration.

Another little known element in the parleys which made it possible for an Indian prime minister to go to Islamabad after a gap of 15 years is the role the Chinese played in bringing it about. It is a shame that American dominance over the global media makes it appear that even an insignificant remark by no more than the US state department’s deputy spokesman about India and Pakistan gets played up as an initiative, but painstaking diplomacy by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, or the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in bringing together south Asia’s biggest neighbours gets no credit or notice.

Vajpayee was one of the first foreign leaders to meet Hu and Wen after they took over the levers of power in Beijing last year. Vajpayee’s visit, which took place when many of China’s friends were hesitating to go to Beijing so soon after SARS, left a deep impression on the two Chinese, new at the top. Pakistan was a subject of extended discussion during Vajpayee’s stay in Beijing, in part because the Chinese have an identical problem as the Indians: infiltration of religious radicals into Sinkiang province from across the border with Pakistan.

Musharraf fears the US and has no love for the leadership in Washington, which orders him about and gives him ultimatums. But he trusts the Chinese and believes that Beijing has the good of Pakistan at heart when it deals with Islamabad. So, when Hu and Wen counselled Pakistan’s president to make up with India during Musharraf’s visit to China in November, he took that advice very seriously.

This newspaper had reported in its news columns in April last year how China readily responded to a request from Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw — when he and the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, were busy with the war in Iraq — to play a role in defusing yet another crisis between India and Pakistan.

Musharraf was often fascinated by Menon’s deep understanding of China: Menon’s grandfather, his uncle and his father-in-law were all Indian ambassadors to China and his mother went to college in Chengdu. Menon himself had three tours of duty in Beijing, the last and most recent as ambassador.

Naturally, the chats between Musharraf and Menon at the Islamabad Golf Club covered China too. The general was very much interested in how India had handled its messy relations with China. One story which is said to have captivated Musharraf was an account by his foreign secretary, Riaz Khokar, about how Menon, as joint secretary in South Block dealing with east Asia, dealt with the Chinese ambassador, who was protesting against India’s decision to hold elections in Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing does not accept as Indian territory.

Menon would not accept the Chinese protest and a protest note was pushed back and forth across the table between him and the then Chinese ambassador to India, Cheng Ruisheng, until the note lay exactly in the middle, equidistant from the two men. Their diplomatic duty thus out of the way, Menon and Cheng then proceeded to discuss in Mandarin other matters of interest to them over tea and biscuits.

A third, little-known ingredient in Vajpayee’s journey to Islamabad is Khokar. When Khokar arrived in Beijing as ambassador in late 1999, he was pleasantly surprised to find that missing at the Indian mission in Beijing was the severe hostility he had encountered in Washington, both from the Indian mission and the Indian community in the US, and earlier, from South and North Blocks during his posting as high commissioner in India. He and Vijay Nambiar, then India’s man in Beijing, established a correct, but cordial working relationship.

A decade ago, Khokar angrily told this columnist during a 45-minute chat on the lawns of the German ambassador’s residence in New Delhi that Indians must accept that for the next 14 years they would have to deal with him. “I am not the kind who can be exiled to Dakar or Lagos”, he boasted then. His outburst was in reaction to a news story written by this columnist. The story, Khokar wrongly concluded, was written at the behest of South Block, which was, at that time, giving him a particularly rough time.

Although Khokar’s boast came true, the initial months after Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri became Pakistan’s foreign minister were consumed by turf battles between the minister and the foreign secretary. Khokar, typically, asserted himself. He conclusively demonstrated that he was the boss when he chose Munawar Bhatti — who earlier worked with him in New Delhi — as acting high commissioner in India to succeed Jalil Abbas Jilani, who was discredited for channelling money for Kashmiri separatists.

Having scored decisive victories against the minister, those familiar with the ways of the Pakistani foreign office say Khokar now wants to leave his footprint as the best foreign secretary his country ever had. Indians who went to Islamabad for the 12th SAARC summit insist that as Pakistan’s foreign secretary, he is a different man from the Khokar they have known over the years. Without that change — whether it is real or put on for the time being — much of what happened between the Indian and Pakistani delegations in the last few days would have been impossible.

The Pakistanis were considerably handicapped in their ability to manipulate the foreign media by the absence of the veteran Musharraf spokesman, Major General Rashid Qureshi, who fell out with his boss last year and was removed from his post. Two years ago, in Agra, Qureshi became the darling of the foreign media when he freely handed out his cellphone number to correspondents starved for news because of a mutually agreed news blackout.

This time, the Indians left nothing to chance. Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, took a personal interest in the interview of Vajpayee by Naseem Zehra on behalf of Pakistan Television in the knowledge that she speaks for the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi and is, therefore, assiduously courted by the American establishment.

Of course, none of what took place in Islamabad would have been possible if Vajpayee did not have a vision about India’s place in south Asia and the world or if he was not determined to push through that vision in his own, inimitable style. The closest of Vajpayee’s aides insist in private that they were taken completely by surprise when the prime minister announced in Srinagar last April that he would embark on one final peace initiative with Pakistan. The decision was entirely his and Vajpayee kept the cards close to his chest until the public announcement.

For the first time since SAARC was created 18 years ago, an Indian prime minister succeeded in transforming it from a platform against India into an organization which held out the promise of common good for the region. In the process, Vajpayee was able to use SAARC as an instrument of Indian foreign policy, much the same way New Delhi used the non-aligned movement in the Seventies and Eighties.

If SAARC keeps up the momentum it picked up in Islamabad, Pakistan will have no option but to keep up with the engine of regional change and seek a rapprochement with India. History will sit in judgment on whether this would have been possible if the Americans had not changed Pakistan from a “failed state” into a “non-state”, considerably diminished in its capacity for any independent decision-making, be it on Afghanistan or, as the Indians hope, on Kashmir very soon.

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