President Pervez Musharraf sure has chutzpah. In the course of a television interview with an Indian journalist, he has, on the face of it, abandoned decades of the most sacredly held mantras of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy: plebiscite and the United Nations security council resolutions. During the course of the conversation, the general even ruled out supporting an independent Kashmir. In the past too, the president has signaled a shift, but never so categorically, or so explicitly.
It is also clear that there is greater convergence today between the positions of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and General Musharraf on Kashmir than there has been between any two leaders of India and Pakistan in the last forty years. Both have ruled out a change of borders or an exchange of territories. Instead, they want the borders to be made irrelevant in order to ensure a free flow of goods, services and ideas across the line of control. It is also clear that there cannot be any visible dilution of political sovereignty. There are, of course, real differences over joint supervision and demilitarization, but President Musharraf seems to have conceded today much more than any Pakistani leader in the past.
Is this for real' Does Musharraf really want a final reconciliation with India based on a grand compromise' Or is this, as most of the Indian establishment thinks, merely chaalbazi to get a foothold in Kashmir' The reality, however, is that even by the most diabolic understanding of President Musharraf, India needs to engage with Pakistan and its leader’s views on Kashmir in our own national interest.
Let us face it, President Musharraf is not an easy man to understand, precisely because he appears to be exactly what you expect him not to be: transparent, straight and flexible. Indeed, for an army commando, it is strange the way that he can almost mesmerize his audience with his words. During a lengthy interaction a group of us had with him in Islamabad earlier this year, he was ready to answer any question — even those targeting him personally — without showing the slightest rancour. And throughout the two hours, he came across as someone who genuinely wanted to make peace with India. For a few minutes, at least, even his otherwise most fierce opponents (and this included super-hawks of the Indian establishment) were ready to concede that the general was a most reasonable man. Only later did it seem that this was a case of the speediest “Stockholm syndrome”. After all, how could a former muhajir — an India-hating army commando who authored Kargil and ditched us in Agra — be a sincere man to be trusted'
The fact is that for Indians, the trust deficit in Pakistan begins right at the top. Sections of public opinion, aided of course by a cynical establishment, cannot bring itself to believe that President Musharraf could really want an accommodation with India. Why should someone who witnessed the horrors of Partition want to be friends with us' Why should someone who spent his career in the Pakistan army, presumably fed on a daily diet of anti-India propaganda, suddenly want to cozy up to the eastern neighbour' And why should someone who plotted the great betrayal at Kargil and let down the venerable Vajpayeeji at Agra suddenly become a messiah of peace'
The tragedy, of course, is that the Indian establishment has rarely, if ever, accurately gauged the mind of leaders from Pakistan. Understanding the mind of Pervez Musharraf, probably the most agile and complex of recent Pakistani leaders, requires an ability that goes beyond backgrounders and pre-conceived notions of Muslims, Pakistanis and generals.
The reality, however, is that people do change — all the time, as a matter of fact. We often tend to judge leaders by the absolute standards of robots, not as mere human mortals who can think and act differently if circumstances change. President Musharraf has, as we all know, done many U-turns in the past, especially after 9/11. The Musharraf of Agra, who chided Indian editors at breakfast, is not the Musharraf of last week’s interview. Prannoy Roy should be the first to concede this not-so-startling revelation. But is Musharraf now willing to do the Mother of All U-turns, change forever Pakistan’s policy on Kashmir'
The proof, as they say, is in the eating or perhaps just in tasting the recipe. Engage Musharraf, play with his ideas, suggest alternatives, but do not reject his proposals because of his past obnoxiousness. In any case, it is in India’s interest to be seen as engaging in dialogue with the Musharraf proposals for a variety of reasons. Let us be clear, only the most straitjacketed can argue that President Musharraf’s recent proposals do not demonstrate flexibility. Whether or not this new shift demonstrates a fresh willingness to compromise and make peace with India, or is merely a ploy to gain entry into Kashmir needs to be carefully studied.
Consider, however, the response from the Kashmir valley. Almost every major political force — from mainstream to separatist, from the National Conference of Farooq Abdullah to Mufti Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party to the All Party Hurriyat Conference — has welcomed the proposals. Indeed, the only group in the valley to outrightly reject the Pakistan leader’s ideas is, ironically, the pro-Pakistan, hardline Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Ali Shah Geelani. If, at least in part, New Delhi’s Kashmir policy is to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people, then it is important not to reject outright the flexibility inherent in Musharraf’s ideas.
Similarly, because the Pakistani president’s proposals seem reasonable, they are being taken seriously internationally. And precisely for this reason, it is vital to engage with them constructively. But beyond these tactically domestic and international considerations is the possibility that Musharraf may have actually changed. The only way to test if this is indeed the case is by dealing with him.
Engagement should in no case mean lowering the strategic guard or the vigil that is essential in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, the only real test of Pakistan’s intentions will be a permanent end to violence, an end to infiltration and an end to a policy that was created to bleed India through a thousand cuts. But if Pakistan does want to take steps in that direction — in abandoning that misguided policy — it would be a tragedy if we did not help it merely because of a history of bitterness and bureaucratic inertia, and only because we could never bring ourselves to trust a man called Musharraf.