Byline by M.J.Akbar: Trust Thy Neighbour
If life had followed the predictable arc for President Musharraf, he would possibly have been running a think-tank NGO on strategic warfare by now. Instead he is making the running for history. Dr Manmohan Singh is not the kind of man who would have ever fantasised about being Prime Minister. But he has grasped the opportunity with consummate ease and a beguiling confidence. The two leaders are agreed on two things: that there is no sensible substitute for peace, and peace will come only when India and Pakistan melt the rigidity that has created confrontation and sparked off war.
A without speeches is not necessarily a speechless dinner. One of the paradoxes of official life in a capital city like Delhi is that the more speeches there are the more silence there is during the rest of the meal.
There were no official speeches on the agenda at the dinner that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted for President Pervez Musharraf on 16 April since the President had not come on an official visit, he had come to watch cricket. (The British had no idea what they were leaving behind; without English and cricket, where would our subcontinent be?) But at about five in the evening that Saturday the Pakistani delegation was informed that Prime Minister Singh would like to make a few remarks.
When Dr Manmohan Singh brought out a printed speech during dinner, the hearts of Pakistani officials accompanying President Musharraf began to flutter. No equivalent speech had been prepared in response. On the rising scale of gaffes, this was in the penthouse apartment. High commissioners have been known to lose their jobs for less. But President Musharraf lost neither his temper nor his composure. After Dr Singh finished an emotional and stirring paean to peace between India and Pakistan, President Musharraf offered an unscripted, impromptu response that his delegation now characterises as one of his finest. At least they were left speechless.
Our first image of President Musharraf, seen on television after the coup against Nawaz Sharif, was of a general playing with a silver gun. Our most recent image is that of a peacemaker with a silver tongue. How did the change come about?
Surprise winners of the power lottery have one significant advantage over elected leaders: they have nowhere to go but up. They begin from a base of such low expectations that they have to be particularly silly to sink further in the public esteem. It is not as if this cannot happen. Very little was expected for instance of President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, who replaced the long-serving Ayub Khan. His main responsibility was to bridge the time difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. He bungled it so badly that the country split.
An elected leader has quite a different problem. A newly-elected leader has the opposite problem. His or her peak moment comes with victory. The voter has delivered a decision and the more unexpected it is, the stronger the need for emotional (through speeches) and practical (through policies) recompense. It is hard for the most accomplished leader to deliver: witness the problems Mrs Indira Gandhi had after her astonishing victory in 1971 and her even more astonishing recovery in 1980. The Janata simply withered under the weight of great expectations between 1977 and 1979.
If life had followed the predictable arc for President Musharraf, he would possibly have been running a think-tank NGO on strategic warfare by now. Instead he is making the running for history. Dr Manmohan Singh is not the kind of man who would have ever fantasised about being Prime Minister. But he has grasped the opportunity with consummate ease and a beguiling confidence. The two leaders are agreed on two things: that there is no sensible substitute for peace, and peace will come only when India and Pakistan melt the rigidity that has created confrontation and sparked off war. Who would have expected an Indian Prime Minister to cauterise the hardliners of his own bureaucracy and stretch out a hand of welcome that was transparently honest, and which was trusted by yesterday’s foe? Who would have thought that a Pakistani President, and one in uniform at that, would have said on Indian soil that there could be no military solution to the Kashmir problem, or that the peace process was now "irreversible"? He was not being unrealistic. He also warned that if no solution was found, he could not vouch for what might happen in five or ten years.
Two questions, possibly asked with a bemused look. How did we arrive here? And where do we go next?
Indo-Pak relations are not propelled by a single fact or factor. A number of atoms keep whirling within the reactor for a long while until they develop critical mass. Here is a quick list. Peace can only be built on a foundation of confidence. Confidence is not a flash of revelatory lightning on the road of Damascus; it takes time and the variations of experience, for the brick and mortar of confidence is realism.
Seven years ago India and Pakistan went nuclear, and with that began the last phase of the war that started in 1947. It was a war of brinkmanship that tested nerves to the limit; that included a hot phase in Kargil, insurrection, the near-demolition of Parliament in New Delhi and a moment when America ordered its non-essential staff out of the subcontinent because it felt that a nuclear fallout was imminent. Nothing, they say, clears your mind faster than the prospect of a hanging. Minds began to clear at that point.
Nuclear power is the strength of a closed fist; God forbid that anyone should reveal what lies in that fist. The key to its utility is paradoxical. Since a nuclear war assures mutual destruction, it prevents war. Nuclear power has served to eliminate a street-dread in Pakistan that India can destroy the country because of its anger against partition. Visible evidence came when both sides retreated from war during their eight-month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
9/11 helped: after that momentous day in America, as President Musharraf pointed out, the world changed and a military solution was no longer possible. But that by itself was not enough. America influences the world, as any superpower would, but it does not control the seminal fluid of historic passions that give birth to war. Fundamental to the new spirit is the popular support in both countries for peace. It was cricket that once again permitted the two peoples to rediscover each other, and they began to wonder why they had been tricked into hatred when there was such obvious and natural fraternity. There is also a strong belief, particularly among the young, that elites have turned into an alibi for economic stagnation or at least insufficient progress. People are simply not ready to accept poor governance and poverty any longer, and governments — whether dictatorial or democratic — have to measure the cost of disaffection.
If Dr Singh is at the start of his first term in office, then President Musharraf is, in a sense, at the start of his second. Both need momentum. Both know that in the present climate a peace dividend can sustain their governments as well their own place at the top. They are also surely aware of the risks of failure. The President has to deal with hardliners who will wave that slightly stale label of appeasement, and he has faced assassination attempts from the war lobby already. Dr Singh could be outflanked as well, if not now a little later. While the senior leadership of the BJP is committed to the peace process thanks to Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee’s crucial role in it, the BJP is in flux. There is Narendra Modi waiting to win votes by blaming "Mian Musharraf" for a dozen crimes.
Can India and Pakistan continue their forward movement if there is no forward movement on Jammu and Kashmir? No. The formula for hope rests on three legs. Peace must have a real meaning for the people of Kashmir, on either side of the divide. This much is now understood by Delhi as well as Islamabad, which is why there is a bilateral commitment to soft borders. It is axiomatic that if the line melts in the Himalayas, then it will thaw even faster in Punjab and the plains. The next step is engagement with Kashmiri leaders of all hues. There has been significant change in this respect as well. While Delhi is ready to meet the Hurriyat (if Dr Singh’s offer had not been foolishly turned down, the talks could have already begun), President Musharraf has publicly accepted that there are other voices apart from the Hurriyat in the valley. Delhi and Islamabad have also realised that any "final solution" has to be both acceptable and sustainable, and this cannot happen without agreement between the two.
The promise of peace must not be confused with peace. The optimism has come from the change in dialectic, but all the hard work remains to be done. There is still a walk through a swamp ahead, with leaves as markers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf will have to tread lightly at every step, occasionally helping each other out. This is going to need huge investment in trust. They will have to find it along the way, for the one missing from the Indo-Pak vault is trust.