February 28, 2020
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Backroom Boomerangs

Secret diplomacy is not a bad thing per se, but as India and Pakistan discover, extremely difficult to hide

Backroom Boomerangs
It's over." That parting quip, at the end of a harrowing week in South Block, provided an aptly cryptic epitaph for one of the most slippery diplomatic operations since Kargil erupted. For a week, as a new buzzphrase-back-channel contacts-appeared on the scene, the phones never stopped ringing in the foreign ministry, and rationalisations were doled out double-quick as senior bureaucrats bristled at the idea that India was doing a deal. But it was all doomed to end prematurely.

Yes, for back-channel talks to succeed, it is of the essence is that they stay in the back-channel, that is, secret. And that's precisely what didn't happen with the secret parleys between special emissary R.K. Mishra and his Pakistani counterpart, Niaz Naik. The two were trying to do by talking what both governments are publicly committed to doing by more military means. "When the interlocutor is unreliable, you can't have back-channel contacts," explained a source.

The 'sabotage' was a telling comment on the entrenched intransigence of hawks. The cover was blown via a leak from Islamabad, and not too many tears were shed in New Delhi. The heartburn is not because a chance for peace was lost but the embarrassment at the cat being let out of the bag.

Exactly what they talked about, only M/s Naik and Mishra know. But the bottomline was clear. India's message was that the intruders had to go. There could be no deal on that aspect; aggression wouldn't be rewarded. What could be discussed were the means to accomplishing this end; code language, many feel, for a non-military manoeuvre aimed at getting the intruders out. Other "proposals" could be discussed later.

Naik raised some hopes in a bbc interview in which he said that he had discussed with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee a meeting between the Directors General of Military Operations (dgmos) of India and Pakistan to discuss the schedule of withdrawal. But government sources pooh-pooh this idea. "It's absolutely wrong. dgmos talk to each other every week routinely."

A senior official felt Naik himself was so embarrassed by the fact that his visit had been aborted that he was forced to make "noises". There are other stock one-liners to try and play down this back-channel diplomacy: "Why are you guys (in the media) so excited? It's no big deal," chided an official.

Naik is believed to have come with some suggestions to defuse the situation. One is said to be a formula for a ceasefire-this is where 'safe passage' comes in-and troop withdrawals. This would provide a face-saving formula to Pakistan and save Indian lives. Government sources refuse to comment, but the idea is a non-starter. The Indian leadership can't accept this unless accompanied by an iron-clad guarantee.

Naik's other suggestion is believed to be a Vajpayee-Sharif meeting (which sources rule out vehemently) and if not, then at least a meeting between the two foreign ministers. This, sources point out, was proposed by Sartaj Aziz himself when he came to India in June and was turned down.

For one, this discounts the fact that Vajpayee has steadfastly stood against escalating the conflict. He has refused to be pressured by both home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes, who have been advocating a more hardline approach to Pakistan from the beginning. This difference is often seen in the meetings of the cabinet committee on security (ccs).

Even on the issue of a voluntary withdrawal, whatever its public stance, the fact is that India has been closely looking at this option. It's just that Islamabad has not been coming around to it, cramped for space by the severe pressure from hawks at home.

In an emergency ccs meeting on June 25, the government put under the microscope each and every idea that could come from Pakistan. This was just a day before the visit of Naik and US envoy Gibson Lanpher to Delhi. The latter briefed Indian leaders about Gen Anthony Zinni's talks in Pakistan and is believed to have asked if India was ready to go for a time-bound settlement for Kashmir, as sought by Pakistan. (Principal secretary Brajesh Mishra finally revealed on July 2 that Lanpher had brought along a withdrawal formula, but India rejected it because it didn't want "third party mediation".) A time-frame for Kashmir, and the challenging of the LoC's sanctity, are the other two new weapons in Pakistan's diplomatic arsenal.

But force of circumstance and world opinion appears to be forcing a rethink in Islamabad. According to a report in The News (July 2), a meeting headed by Sharif suggested that he contact Vajpayee again directly. The report also hinted that despite the setback, the back channel would be kept open.

In India, there's a view that Vajpayee shouldn't have met Naik. "He should've stayed out of it," says a source. But this is perhaps an afterthought because the leak has embarrassed New Delhi in general, and Vajpayee personally. The prime minister meeting an emissary of a nation in a state of undeclared war with India sends the message that he is not averse to a diplomatic solution, an approach hardliners in India and in his own party interpret as a sign of weakness.

The back channels effectively torpedoed for now, does it mean there will be no more dialogue? "You know our position," is all a source would say. But in the present circumstances, diplomatic initiatives-overt or covert-can't be ruled out. There is nothing wrong per se with "secret diplomacy". But to deny it once the cover is blown is not just silly, but gives the impression that the government is trying to hide something.

In fact, back-channel diplomacy has been on since last year. "Trips by R.K. Mishra began long before Kargil blew up," admitted a source. Last November, Mishra, chairman of the Ambani-owned Observer group and ex-Congress MP, visited Pakistan as Vajpayee's emissary and got red carpet treatment. He visited Islamabad and Lahore, a government pool Mercedes was at his disposal, and he met, among others, Sharif and his brother, Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif. He reportedly assured them that India was willing to invest heavily in Pakistan. Later, he briefed both Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra.

The process continued; both sides were keen. Mishra made at least three trips to Pakistan before Vajpayee's Lahore visit. He regularly carried messages between the two PMs. This, then, was the background to his reported Islamabad trip in early June with Vivek Katju, mea joint secretary. Naik's return trip was but a continuation of this.

Sources say Mishra's visits began as business recces for Reliance, particularly for a pipeline project. But somewhere along the way, with a little help from proponents of Track II diplomacy, he was roped in by Pakistani high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi for a larger role. Both prime ministers were keen and Mishra available. And Kargil was yet to happen.


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