The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Little coincidence in chance offensive

Washington, May 5: When Pervez Musharraf had his ‘chance encounter’ with India’s acting high commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad yesterday, he was once again deploying a weapon in his political and diplomatic armoury which the wily general has learned to use with planning and precision.

The last time Musharraf had a similar ‘chance meeting’ in a restaurant was little over seven months ago — it made headlines on the world pages of newspapers across the globe.

This time, Musharraf’s brief encounter with Raghavan made it to the front pages of many Indian dailies.

On October 27 last year, Musharraf drove out of Islamabad, half-an-hour towards the picturesque Margalla Hills and headed for a restaurant owned by a Sindhi, Pir Karam Shah.

As in the case of Raghavan on Sunday, the Pakistani President’s spin doctors then had us believe that, purely by coincidence, he ran into Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the man whom Benazir Bhutto’s party had identified as their leader in the new parliament created under Musharraf’s version of the Constitution.

In less than 48 hours after the ‘chance encounter’ between Musharraf and Fahim, Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was out of the high-security ward of the Pakistan Medical Institute of Science in Islamabad. Of the six years plus that Zardari has now been under arrest in Pakistan, he has spent the last year-and-a-half in this medical ward-cum-jail.

During midnight negotiations with Zardari, the general’s emissaries offered him a deal: freedom and exile abroad in return for the support of the People’s Party for a government of the “king’s party”, as Musharraf’s brand of the Muslim League is known in Pakistan.

Or a government headed by Fahim that would be subservient to the military junta with Benazir’s approval.

Benazir, significantly in Washington, panicked — understandably. The deal fell through and Zardari was back in his hospital jail.

Tongues are now wagging in Islamabad, Washington, London and other capitals where Pakistan’s survivor-general is studied with interest.

As in Pir Sohawa in Margalla Hills in October, there is no way the encounter with Raghavan on Sunday was a coincidence. Indian diplomats and journalists in Islamabad are tailed 24 hours of the day, their phones tapped and there are flies on the walls wherever they go in Pakistan.

Well before Musharraf drove to Serena Hotel yesterday, his office would have known if Raghavan had a table reservation there or that the Indian acting high commissioner was lunching there with Mohammad Shezad, reporter of The Friday Times, made famous by Nawaz Sharif’s notorious crackdown on its editor, Najam Sethi.

Make no mistake about it, Pakistan’s cunning strongman is up to his tricks again. The same tricks that won him domestic dividends after Agra.

He did it again in Kathmandu when he shook Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hand at the South Asian summit. Pakistan’s public opinion is convinced that with the gesture of that unsolicited handshake, Musharraf established himself in front of the world as a man of peace.

But why would he want to do this to Raghavan' There is a clue in what Sethi says about his reporter, Mohammad Shezad. According to him, his reporter became “one more Mush fan in the ranks” when the President not only promised him an interview, but also walked up to him once again after Raghavan had left the restaurant.

Raghavan, with his training and experience as a diplomat, will not be starry-eyed about the general just because of what happened on Sunday. But Musharraf is certainly employing what is common practice in diplomacy while handling adversarial state-to-state relations: open the possibility of a second official channel that runs parallel to the main one.

When J.N. Dixit presided over the Indian mission in Islamabad like a colossus and drew the line for the Pakistanis, they tried unsuccessfully to open an alternative line to New Delhi through another member of Raghavan’s family: T.C.A. Rangachari, his predecessor several times removed.

Just as South Block froze high commissioner Riaz Khokar out of the action in New Delhi for several months by dealing only with his deputy, Zamir Akram.

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