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Delhi sees change in Musharraf

New York, Sept. 25: A day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held an hour-long meeting with General Pervez Musharraf, it is emerging that the low-key joint statement which summed up their talks is a laboured exercise in understatement.

Musharraf offered at the meeting to consider all possible options on Kashmir.

Indian officials with a historic memory of Indo-Pak relations point out that this is the first time any Pakistani leader has deviated from Islamabad's rigid stand on Kashmir and shown a willingness to explore options other than self-determination for Kashmiris on the issue of joining Pakistan or remaining within the Indian Union.

Sources who have been briefed on the talks between Singh and Musharraf ' at which even note-takers were not present ' said the General offered to build on what he had already done under US pressure to scale back financial and military help to cross-border terrorism.

Musharraf offered to choke off supplies to terrorists already active in Kashmir, estimated by Indian intelligence officials at about 15,000.

He told Singh he is a much misunderstood man in India.

The Prime Minister told Musharraf that if it becomes clear to terrorists that Pakistan is no longer mentoring their sinister operations, subversives will be discouraged from crossing into Jammu and Kashmir.

India's assessment after yesterday's talks is that Musharraf has shown signs of being a changed man. They believe domestic and global compulsions have made it imperative for the General to augment his international credibility: one way of doing so is to show flexibility with India and move forward with the peace process.

They also believe there is an atmosphere in Pakistan that is more conducive than ever before to the idea of burying the hatchet with India.

The encouragement for a gas pipeline from Central Asia through Pakistan, expressed in yesterday's joint statement, is said to be an Indian concession to foster the popular idea that there are benefits for both countries in putting an end to bilateral confrontation.

India is basing its assessment of a change in Musharraf on a number of circumstantial evidences as well. The General excluded his foreign secretary Riaz Khokar, a confirmed hardliner on India, from his delegation for the talks with Singh.

Khokar, unusually for a foreign secretary, did not come to New York at all. Secondly, it has been confirmed by Pakistani sources that the draft of Musharraf's address to the UN General Assembly this week was never shown to that country's ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram.

Akram has made a career in Pakistan's foreign service from India-bashing. Musharraf's speech to the General Assembly was unprecedentedly soft on India. There was only one brief reference and it struck a hopeful note for peace in South Asia.

In previous years, Musharraf has devoted several paragraphs in his UN address to attacking India. So did Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, without fail, year after year.

All these signs encouraged Singh to have an hour-long one-to-one meeting with Musharraf. Such a meeting was to originally last only 15 minutes: the delegations were to assist their respective leaders for the remainder of the scheduled one-hour talks.

Instead, 15 minutes after the two delegations sat down with Singh and Musharraf, the leaders decided they wanted to frankly and freely talk with no one else present.

To the surprise of officials on both sides, that talk went on for one whole hour.

Last night, the Prime Minister's wife, Gursharan Kaur, made up for the Indian delegation's inability to reciprocate Musharraf's gesture in giving two sentimentally significant gifts to Singh: a painting of his old school in Gah and his marksheet from that school.

The gifts took the Indians by surprise and they had nothing to give Musharraf. Gursharan Kaur had brought with her some watercolours of old Delhi scenes, which she arranged to be sent to Musharraf, who was born in Delhi.

After a hectic week, Singh today spent a quiet day lunching with his old friend and internationally renowned economist, Jagdish Bhagwati.

He spent the rest of the day with his daughter, Amrit, who is a civil rights attorney in New York.

Tomorrow, the delegation accompanying Singh is planning to celebrate his official birthday on the plane as he returns to India.

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