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- Improving Indo-Pakistan relations is a top priority for the UPA

During my last meeting with the former national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, shortly before his death, he predicted dramatic changes in Indo-Pakistan relations in six months. That would have meant the second quarter of 2005 as the time for moving forward with proposals to resolve outstanding disputes with Pakistan, one step at a time.

Dixit did not specifically say what these proposals were. A major difficulty confronting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, in their dealings with Islamabad today is that Dixit did not tell anyone in the government the full scope and range of the negotiations he had conducted with Tariq Aziz, his Pakistani counterpart, between June 2004, when he became Singh’s national security adviser and January 3, 2005, when he died unexpectedly. What he left behind on file in the prime minister’s office is only a fraction of what transpired at the meetings between him and Aziz during the six months when Dixit was Singh’s most trusted foreign policy aide. That has always been Dixit’s style of operation.

After Dixit died, Aziz visited New Delhi to condole the death of the man who could have been his partner in peace in south Asia. Aziz kept the visit low key and called on Dixit’s widow. He met few people in the government other than those he thought could give him an idea of where the Manmohan Singh government stood on the proposals Dixit had made for peace with Pakistan in the six months prior to his death. Pervez Musharraf’s national security adviser went back home and told his boss that the Dixit initiative was a non-starter and that the sense he got in New Delhi was that there would be no forward movement on the proposals, which the two national security advisers had discussed. Aziz probably did not realize that the reaction he got during that visit was because there were not many people in New Delhi who knew enough about Dixit’s peace plan to be able to give him the positive reaction he had hoped for.

The general in Islamabad wanted a second opinion and sent someone on the back channel to New Delhi. That visitor met a large number of people, both within and outside the government, and he pleaded on behalf of Musharraf that substantive steps should be taken towards enduring solutions to problems that had bedevilled relations between India and Pakistan. He also warned that if the opportunity offered by Musharraf’s willingness to change the traditional colours of the Pakistani leopard in its dealings with India was lost, there would not only be a backlash in both countries, but also that such an opportunity may not come for a very long time.

The United Progressive Alliance government attempted for a year or more after Dixit’s death to quietly reconstruct the main elements in the late national security adviser’s dealings with Pakistan and incorporate those into policy. Singh’s resolve to visit Pakistan later this year is the result of a conviction among his top aides that they have put together many missing pieces of the Dixit plan and then cobbled together a similar plan of their own, which could be the basis of a long-term settlement with Pakistan.

This effort need not have taken the two years that it did since the death of Singh’s first national security adviser. Nearly a year was lost because the then external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh — who had not been told of anything that Dixit had initiated on Pakistan — tried to outdo the deceased national security adviser in dealing with Islamabad because he vaguely knew that Dixit had travelled considerably on the road towards a settlement with Pakistan. But the Pakistanis were sceptical of anything Natwar Singh told them because they knew first-hand that whatever he said was at variance with what Dixit had secretly discussed with Aziz. At the same time, most of the now discredited external affairs minister’s proposals were unacceptable within the UPA government because these typically lacked imagination and they were, because of Natwar Singh’s personality, clearly aimed at replacing Dixit’s imprint on Indo-Pakistan relations with his own.

With the gigantic effort to pass the nuclear legislation in the US Congress now out of the way, it is clear that the UPA government’s highest diplomatic priority this year will be to make significant progress towards resolving disputes with Pakistan. If anyone in the Union cabinet is capable of shouldering this tricky task, it is Pranab Mukherjee, an old hand in South Block, who has been recalled to the job he held more than a decade ago.

The last time Mukherjee was foreign minister, he faced an equally tricky task. Then, he had come to South Block curiously convinced that it was possible to placate, pacify and do normal business with Bangladesh. The then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, thought otherwise, from his many years of experience in Mukherjee’s shoes and later as prime minister. But as was Rao’s habit with cabinet colleagues, he did not stop Mukherjee from doing what he wanted to try with Dhaka.

Mukherjee was a different man when he came back after his first visit to Bangladesh as South Block’s political boss. He was canny enough to bury sentiment and completely change course on Bangladesh once he recognized the reality for what it was. In this age of 24-hour television, when news increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator, two sentences in Mukherjee’s joint briefing with the Pakistan foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, have been completely lost on most Indians: these sentences also offer a clue to what he will advise the present prime minister about dealing with Pakistan.

Mukherjee did not mince words when he was asked about the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence in the “insurgency” in Kashmir. “It is the responsibility of any government to take appropriate steps to prevent insurgency and the Government of India is doing the same. So far (as) the involvement of certain agencies are concerned, we are aware of it and we have brought it to the notice of appropriate authorities.” For 18 years, New Delhi has blamed Pakistan for terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India. This is the first time that a cabinet minister has linked the ISI to the “insurgency” in the state and warned that New Delhi will not tolerate it. In a way, that represents the bottom-line on negotiations with Pakistan.

Notwithstanding Mukherjee, the prime minister’s problem, as he prepares to go to Islamabad, is that recent history is against him. What Manmohan Singh has to offer at any summit in Islamabad may be too little too late. Two years down the Dixit-Aziz meetings, the terrorists who bleed India continually in a low-intensity war are no longer under the control of either Musharraf or the ISI. Thanks to George W. Bush, they now have a life of their own, independent of the patronage of the generals at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, who once fed, clothed, housed and trained them.

It is important that the prime minister should fully involve his army, the internal and external intelligence agencies, the paramilitary forces, military intelligence and other government agencies, which have a stake in fighting cross-border terrorism, in the decision-making process before he goes to Islamabad. Otherwise, he may well end up being a one-term prime minister and his Congress party may well find itself on the opposition benches in 2009 because of what the UPA government did with Pakistan.

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