THE mercurial president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, angered Indonesia when he urged former president Suharto to free East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao; he earned the disapproval of the US when he went to Libya to meet president Muammar Gaddafi; and he astounded the world when he kissed the Spice Girls. Mandela is nothing if not unconventional, and when he chose the precincts of an ostensibly non-controversial non-aligned summit to mention the K-word, it unsettled India.
"All of us remain concerned that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir should be solved through peaceful negotiation and should be willing to lend all the strength we have to the resolution of this matter," Mandela remarked at NAM's inaugural address in Durban. India flipped, for this was no mistake. Mandela's speeches, all of which have his final approval, are deemed fine literary essays, and his team of writers come highly recommended.
Why did one of the world's leading statesmen raise an issue that India has repeatedly said should not be internationalised? The reasons being tossed around do not satisfy India. Says a senior MEA source: "I am sure he is very genuinely concerned about the situation in South Asia and that he was speaking not as the political leader of a particular country, but as the conscience of NAM. But the whole issue of internationalisation should not have escaped Mandela. You can be a senior statesman, but not a senior statesman to India."
Has Mandela deliberately decided to take an anti-India stand and "scoff at our position", asks one official? If so, the statement would "constitute a violation of our strategic partnership with South Africa, which would then have to come under review". Or was he misled, and perhaps under pressure from the Americans? Unlikely, say analysts, because NAM's stand against US hegemony is well-known.
Just to reemphasise Delhi's stand on Kashmir, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee even told Mandela at a banquet after the speech that he felt the statement was uncalled for. According to an MEA source, Mandela apparently responded by saying that Kashmir had been mentioned in a larger context of talking about flashpoints in many other parts of the world like Cyprus and Korea. The source says Vajpayee still insisted that such a statement was unacceptable.
On Friday, deputy president Thabo Mbeki finally assured the Indian prime minister that Pretoria still considered Kashmir to be a bilateral issue. "Whatever little flutter may have been there is now behind us," India's high commissioner to South Africa, L.C. Jain, told Outlook.
But India is still perplexed as to why Mandela veered towards the point of view of Pakistan which has for years been raising Kashmir in international fora. Predictably, Pakistan's foreign minister Sartaj Aziz announced that Pakistan was grateful the South African president had brought up the issue in his inaugural address. Both Indian and Pakistani officials held meetings in Durban and announced that they had agreed on the modalities of future talks.
There are other Indians who believe that this perceived problem statement is of India's making. Says Pran Chopra of the Centre for Policy Research: "I look upon this more as a sign of a failure of Indian diplomacy to put forth our point of view with clarity, rather than as a sign of a position taken by South Africa which would be adverse to India's interests." He believes India has not been convincing in its statements that it is willing to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, "as it is keen to discuss other bilateral issues".
CURIOUSLY, another version of this strain of thought has permeated the corridors of power where the postPokhran scenario is being seen as a challenge to Indian diplomacy. "A nuclear subcontinent is of legitimate concern to the whole world, and the more we pretend that it is illegitimate, the more we will feel the pressure," says a senior MEA official. New Delhi has to come up with "more suitable responses than just fobbing off all international concern by calling it a bilateral issue". According to him, although "multilateralising" the Kashmir problem is out of the question, a new, vigilant foreign policy is required, and India's experience at the present summit at Durban is only a small example of the need for review.
One analyst believes that there are a handful of pro-Pakistan elements within the South African administration who might have influenced the decision to bring up Jammu and Kashmir in Durban. And one such individual is perhaps Abdul Minty, deputy director general of the department of foreign affairs. "There is something wrong. He is supposed to be with us and he pretends to be progressive and somewhat of a lefty," says the analyst who did not wish to be mentioned. "But after the fall of the Soviet Union a lot of alignments changed and something has gone wrong," he adds.
There are yet others who feel the situation was exacerbated by India's insensitivity at shifting out Gopal Gandhi as its high commissioner and appointing ageing Gandhian L.C. Jain in his place. (Jain also has been recalled before the end of his tenure.) "They were more dismayed with Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson and a good friend of the Mandelas, being taken away before his time was up," says S. Ventak Narayan, who works with various South African media organisations.
India has gained some consolation from the fact that in the final declaration by 113 member-states (which was delayed by intense negotiations over sensitive issues, including Pakistan and India's nuclear tests and consequent fears of proliferation), neither Islamabad nor New Delhi has been singled out for criticism of the nuclear tests in May. Experts say the Durban document, which says there is no justification for the maintenance of nuclear arsenals, brings NAM into line with international non-proliferation efforts. But while the bulk of the document has resolutions carried over from previous summits, South Africa succeeded in getting more forceful language into the communique, particularly on disarmament.
The summit was characterised by tough negotiations and revealed clearly the direction South Africa intends to give NAM in the next three years. "We will use the decisions arrived at during the summit to pursue a practical programme that is directed at ensuring that the development agenda of the countries of the South finds a proper place in world politics and economy," Mandela declared in his closing statement.
But former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit does not believe that India should be patting itself on the back just yet. "We must not attach any exaggerated importance to the final declaration not having mentioned Jammu and Kashmir. The question to be asked is whether the declaration is the substance of the policies of the member-states on issues that concern India—and the answer is no. The substance is in the individual statements which reflect the real policies of the countries."
And while some Indians continue to find fault with South Africa, there are others who console themselves with the idea that the statement by Mandela does not represent the South African view. After all, even a few days prior to the inaugural address, Mbeki had said the Kashmir issue should be solved bilaterally. "It is like the differences between Gandhiji and Nehru," says an official. But the official could not then deny that by the same logic, Mandela and Mbeki may be talking at cross-purposes.