Pakistan, India and “the hidden hand”
Former Indian deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani has just released his autobiography and he takes issue with President Pervez Musharraf for blaming him for being “the hidden hand” behind the failure of a 2001 summit between the two countries that ultimately led to a dangerous military stand-off before they talked peace again.
Though it’s seven years past, both Advani’s, and before him, Musharraf’s version of that summit with Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, still makes for interesting reading. It offers a glimpse into the minds of two powerful men — one a Hindu nationalist leader and the other a military general — as they struggled to set aside the baggage of history and half a century of conflict and came close to making history themselves before courage deserted them. They eventually made their peace, partly brought on by circumstance including a dramatically different world after September 11, but also because the mis-steps of Agra were never far from the mind.
In excerpts from his book “My Country, My Life”, Advani says that in the summer of 2001, he proposed to Vajpayee that he invite General Musharraf for talks, to test the mind of the military ruler who did not carry any political baggage and seemed to be his own master in a country where democratically elected leaders had never exercised real power. The rare invitation to a Pakistani ruler to visit India went out, but what obviously the Indians had not bargained for, Advani suggests, was that the general arrived intending to rewrite India-Pakistan relations totally, and on his own terms.
So the summit against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, whose beauty and symmetry the Indians hoped would soften the former commando, was doomed from the start. Kashmir, as always, remained the stumbling block. India wanted Pakistan to end what it called “cross-border terrorism” — code for Pakistani help to militants fighting to end Indian rule in Kashmir. The Pakistanis in turn, accused India of insincerity and of trying to obstruct any real attempt to tackle the problem at the heart of decades of hostility.
Musharraf says in his book, “In the Line of Fire”, that the two sides came close to an agreement. At one point he even went back to his hotel to change into his “shalwar kameez” ahead of the signing ceremony that had all been arranged, “down to the table and two chairs where we would sit”.
But the Indians backed out and a livid Musharraf let fly at Vajpayee during a farewell call in the dead of the night. “I met Prime Minister Vajpayee at about eleven o’clock that night in an extremely somber mood. I told him bluntly that there seemed to be someone above the two of us who had the power to overrule us. I also said that today both of us had been humiliated. He just sat there, speechless. I left abruptly, after thanking him in brisk manner.”
Most people knew Musharraf was pointing the finger at Advani, for long seen as the hardliner juxtaposed against the poet-politician Vajpayee. Advani himself says in his book that Musharraf was referring to him, but says the whole claim that he scuttled the summit was outrageous. Everyone in the Indian government was on board and agreed that there couldn’t be normalcy in relations until “cross-border terrorism” ended.
And which, Advani says, Pakistan, still led by the general, agreed to at a later summit in Islamabad in 2004. But by then the world had changed, especially Pakistan’s following the September 11 attacks.