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THE BEST IS YET TO COME
- How the PM has grown in his job in a year and a half

Manmohan Singh was full of surprises in New York, maybe not for those Indians who see him every day, but certainly for a columnist resident in Washington who comes face to face with the prime minister on no more than one or two occasions in a year. Singh is no poet. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is not only a man of verse, many of his speeches in Hindi are sheer poetry. Singh couldn't be forced to sit down and write something like The Insider even under threat of dire consequences. Nor does he have P.V. Narasimha Rao's chicanery or capacity for subterfuge that enabled Rao to remain prime minister for five years under very difficult conditions and deal successfully with diplomatic challenges to India. Many a politician would have wilted under those challenges.

That said, at the end of his fourday visit to New York last week, Singh summed up his meeting with Pervez Musharraf with a phrase that said it all. It was an 'essay in mutual comprehension', Singh said. In all the years that this columnist has covered Indo-Pakistan summits, no Indian leader has given such an evocative description of a meeting with the Pakistanis. It was not part of a spin. But it was all the more impressive because it was unexpected from Singh.

Only someone who has gone through the strain of four hours with the wily General and the challenge thrown at India by Islamabad's diplomacy could have come up with those four words which offered the best description of a summit, which promised a lot even as it began and ended in a whimper. His handling of the summit showed how much Singh had grown in his job in a year and a half.

When Singh met Musharraf last September at the Pakistan-owned Roosevelt Hotel in New York, the prime minister was so dependent on his aides: both visibly and according to accounts by those in his inner circle. Not this time. It was also clear to everyone who watched him in action last week that Singh's comprehension of the inner workings of diplomacy equalled that of any head of state or government in Moscow, Berlin, Havana or Paris. There was none of the spoon-feeding on foreign policy, no hesitation in answering questions that was in evidence a year ago. In short, here was a prime minister who was sure of himself.

Historically, Pakistan has always miscalculated the strength and resilience of Indian leaders and India's political system. Musharraf has done it more than other politicians or Generals in his country because he likes to take chances. After all, he took his chances with the Americans after September 11, 2001 and changed from being a pariah by normal standards of US political correctness into being anointed as their most faithful ally. Because he has risked and come out on top every time, be it against his one-time mentor and prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, or against the very Generals on whose shoulders he climbed into the presidency, Musharraf has not hesitated to do the same with Indian leaders.

Part of the reason why Musharraf went home empty-handed from New York last week was because he aimed high as usual and lost once again to the system in India. There is no system in a dictatorship as understood in democracies. In Pakistan, Musharraf is, in fact, the system. He really believed that by pitching his targets high, he could get India to reduce troops. There is no other explanation for his demand in public that India should cut its security presence in Jammu and Kashmir, and his plea to George W. Bush to help him in achieving that objective. The Indian delegation went into their talks in New York with Musharraf, bewildered that the General should go so far as to identify Kupwara and Baramulla as the areas marked for troop reduction by India before even discussing it with the prime minister.

By going back on his understanding with Indians that he would not drag Kashmir back into the UN while a bilateral process to resolve the issue was under way, Musharraf believed that he could have his cake and eat it too. Musharraf appeared to have developed the impression from his meetings with Singh in September 2004 and in April this year that the prime minister is a softie whom he could manipulate. After all, didn't the equally wily Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto successfully manipulate Indira Gandhi, of all persons, in Shimla into releasing his prisoners of war' And didn't he manage to make their agreement about the line of control becoming a permanent border secret on the plea that he needed time until Pakistan's wounds from Bangladesh healed before he could agree to the deal in public'

Those who know Singh very closely say that the change in the prime minister on matters of foreign policy came after his visit to the White House in July. They say that the way America was courting India truly changed the prime minister's own perception of India. Until he arrived in Washington in July, the prime minister had been used to scepticism within his own office about America and its intentions vis-'-vis New Delhi. An Indian architect of the emerging Indo-US partnership told the prime minister on that trip that if only Indians had the same esteem about their country and confidence in its future which the Americans believed in, New Delhi would do a better job of finding and asserting its place in the world. After all the initiatives which he unveiled with Bush at the White House, the prime minister was in no doubt about such reasoning.

Musharraf did not reckon with the possibility that the Manmohan Singh whom he was meeting last Wednesday was a considerably changed man from the Manmohan Singh he had met a year earlier for the first time and again five months ago. Musharraf is a chameleon, if nothing else. As soon as he realized this change during the first hour and 45 minutes of last week's four-hour Indo-Pakistan summit, he changed his colours. Musharraf was all charm and sweetness during the second phase of the summit, at the dining table where Singh was the host.

This newspaper has already reported how Musharraf tried to draw the Indian delegation into small talk by narrating his experience at Cuckoo's, a new restaurant in Lahore built in the old, traditional home of a Hindu family. What was not reported last week was that Musharraf did not easily succeed in lightening the mood or in drawing all his hosts into such small talk. The prime minister remained angry and resentful, disappointed at the turn of events. Only the external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, a diplomat for most of his life, responded to the tales at the dining table.

The thaw came when Musharraf talked about how he was embarrassed during a visit to Cuckoo's because it had a painting on the wall depicting a man in uniform dragging a woman by her hair. Musharraf told the owner of the restaurant that as a man in uniform himself, he was embarrassed by the painting. But, Musharraf added, the owner of the restaurant was cleverer than the General had given him credit for. Without batting an eye-lid, he told Musharraf that the man in uniform in the painting was not from the army, but a policeman. It was now the turn of everyone at the dinner to tease the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, the only career police officer at the table.

After their aides left Manmohan Singh and Musharraf alone at the dining table for a one-on-one dialogue, the possibility emerged that some face-saving formula to project the summit as a success could be worked out. But Manmohan Singh was in no mood for half-baked measures and wanted Musharraf to realize that he could not play the kind of games he did in Agra at an earlier summit.

When Manmohan Singh went home after last September's New York meeting with Musharraf, his opponents accused him of not being tough enough with Musharraf on terrorism. It is an indication of how much the prime minister has changed that it is now being said that he was very tough on terrorism last week. What the Americans asked India to do about Iran last week has further changed Manmohan Singh's world view and his assessment of India's global role. If he translates these views into policy, the best is yet to come for Indian diplomacy.

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