May 30, 2020
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Two Characters In Search Of A Script

The Opposition here welcomes the BJP's consensus-building with caution. Musharraf's efforts are greeted with scepticism.

Two Characters In Search Of A Script
"Finally, we are convinced that a nation of nearly 100 crore people representing a sixth of humanity cannot be governed on the arithmetic alone of majority and minority.... We will, therefore, strive to develop national consensus on all major issues confronting the nation by involving the opposition parties and all sections of society in dialogue."
—NDA election manifesto, 1999

As Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee prepares to meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the government has belatedly initiated a process of political consultations with a clutch of political leaders. On June 28, Vajpayee met former prime ministers V.P. Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao. Subsequently, an all-party meet has been convened in Agra for July 9, a week before the summit, to apprise the Opposition of the reasons why Musharraf has been invited over for talks.

Ironically, Pakistani high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi was first off the block, meeting Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, former prime ministers and a host of Opposition stalwarts and luminaries, even before Vajpayee initiated the consultation process. Qazi's intention was to gauge the overall political mood in the country and determine the extent of political acceptability for the summit before President Musharraf lands in New Delhi.

But this wasn't all. Qazi even invited former PM H.D. Deve Gowda and Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh to Pakistan. Gowda was quick to accept it. Amar Singh, however, thought it prudent to keep the PM informed of this development—"so as to avoid any misunderstanding in the future"—and accepted it only in principle.

He acerbically points out that Vajpayee's attempts at building a political consensus is a refreshing change from the attitude he had displayed before the Lahore bus trip. Says he: "Then, Vajpayee preferred to consult (actor) Dev Anand saheb instead of other politicians. There was no consultation worth mentioning. The bjp went on a credit-grabbing spree and didn't want to share the bus ride with others. First, he should get his own party to agree on Kashmir. The only unity the nda can have on the issue is unity in diversity."

Adds Deve Gowda: "At least, now he has realised the importance of an all-party meeting. It is an utter disgrace if anybody thinks Kashmir is a single-party issue. It is a national issue. But what consensus is the prime minister talking about? Even nda partners have been kept in the dark on all major issues."

The Opposition's crib is the government wants to convince those who are already convinced about the need to resolve the Kashmir dispute. They say the bjp should, instead, focus on persuading its own cadre and leaders on Kashmir. And they do have a point, considering the saffron brigade's continual flip-flop on the issue.

For instance, on June 30 last year, then bjp president Kushabhau Thakre met Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani to tell them that the party was opposed to the autonomy resolution that Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah—incidentally, the leader of an nda constituent—had got passed in the state assembly. Thakre's reason: "It would cause disintegration of the country." Party vice-president J.P. Mathur even declared that Abdullah brought the resolution as "he wants to win the assembly elections by instigating Islamic fundamentalism in the Valley".

So then, can the bjp accept a compromise on Kashmir? Says cpi leader D.Raja: "Look at the bjp and their fraternal political organisations' (rss and vhp) stances on Article 370, autonomy to j&k as well as their thoughts on trifurcation. What are we to make of all this?" Indeed, there has been no effort on the PM's part to bring about a consensus on Kashmir in his own party and among its affiliates.

Points out former prime minister V.P. Singh: "The history of positions taken by the bjp on this issue is quite confusing. It is unclear how much groundwork has been done and what the goal of the summit is." He points to yet another irony: had Vajpayee and Musharraf been in the Opposition, they would have done their best to ensure that an Agra-type summit didn't succeed.

He, therefore, feels that "broad consensus must not be a matter of governments alone. Both should try to understand the political constraints of the other side. After that there should be a conscious effort on the part of both sides to work for greater elbow-room. There is a limit to it, after all." He says the situation is complex and there are no readymade answers. "You can't expect all solutions in one go. Therefore, you can't start from a solution-end. Markers will have to be set by both Musharraf and Vajpayee in order to search for possible solutions."

Yet another former prime minister, I.K. Gujral, feels the need to build consensus has emerged because of the dominance of coalition politics. Indira Gandhi, for instance, didn't need to do it because her party commanded a domineering majority in Parliament. "Yet," Gujral says, "in a crowded political scene, consensus-building is not possible. All that Vajpayee has to do is to consult selectively those whose advice he trusts."

Gujral is more than emphatic that the core issue between India and Pakistan is not Kashmir. He explains: "The core issue is, how do we live and interact as neighbours? Diplomacy is not a cricket match. What can Prime Minister Vajpayee give Musharraf on Kashmir? Can he give him a stamp paper saying 'Kashmir is yours, take it?' The aim of effective diplomacy is not to produce papers. It is about clarification of the mind."

Left out of the hectic political activities is the Hurriyat, which decided to write letters to both Vajpayee and Musharraf seeking meetings—and consequently hope for political accommodation. This is the first time ever that the Hurriyat has written to the prime minister. It hasn't received a reply from him, nor can it expect one. Government sources insist the letter has reached a 'dead letter' office, with K.C. Pant—the government's pointsman for Kashmir—and Vajpayee deciding against responding to the Hurriyat missive.

A signal, though, may yet again be sent to the Hurriyat for getting in touch with Pant. The government is now confident that Musharraf is aware that he is coming not to meet the Hurriyat but to get the forever stuck bilateral processes going. The Indian government is going out of its way to ensure that the Hurriyat doesn't insinuate itself into a "tripartite" scenario.

The Hurriyat, once again, finds itself in a dilemma. There are indications that the letters to both Musharraf and Vajpayee were sent out before a formal consensus could emerge on it. Sources say Hurriyat chairman Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat drafted the letters, showed it to Abdul Ghani Lone and the Mirwaiz who did not raise objections. Hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, however, distanced himself from the letters. Surprisingly, even Yasin Malik, now in the UK, is reportedly unhappy, believing that if the Hurriyat had to talk to the Government of India, it could have talked to Pant in the first place.

Malik, in a bitter outburst, has accused Pakistan of "having ditched" the Kashmiris. He has praised Vajpayee and criticised Musharraf. Sources say that from now on the breach between the jklf and Pakistan will only widen.

For the moment, as far as the Musharraf-Vajpayee summit is concerned, a source says the option before the Hurriyat is very clear: "They will be watching the Agra summit on Pakistan TV, sitting in Srinagar." But all is not lost for the Hurriyat. Sources say the result of the summit will give the umbrella outfit a chance to carve a political space of its own.
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