Now the ball's in your court, Dr Singh

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a question for Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. I can summarise a recent conversation with him in these few words: how can you expect me to push through a peace agreement on Kashmir when militants from Pakistan set off bombs in India every two months? No leader can be too far ahead of public opinion.

The dispute over the Muslim-dominated province of Kashmir has led to three wars. The consensus among senior diplomats is that Dr Singh is at the forefront of India's doves - and if he can't bring India to settle the row, then perhaps no one can. Thus, this question of his becomes the central issue. When I put it to General Musharraf, he said: 'I don't agree. If everyone in the world looked for calm and peace before reaching a solution, we would never achieve peace anywhere. It is the political deal itself than can produce calm. Bomb blasts are a result of the problem. Let's not put the cart before the horse.'

That's a good point, especially since the general atmosphere is now quite benign. Much has been achieved on other important issues of dispute - border delineation in Sir Creek and the Siachen glacier, together with the opening of crossing points on the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the two countries. Last week, Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said that the Siachen glacier dispute 'could be solved within days'.

Many believe General Musharraf has made concessions to India. It is now time for Dr Singh to tell the nation straight that this move is in India's interests - to end occasional bombings, to put to rest the chances of another war and to open borders to immense trade possibilities. But Dr Singh is constrained not only by public opinion but by conservative forces in the Foreign Ministry, the intelligence services and even the military. That is rather ironic considering that Pakistan would not have come this far except under a military leader whose past credentials, before he took power in a coup, were to provoke India to war.

General Musharraf made no bones in our two-hour conversation about militants being active from inside Pakistan. Nor does he deny that al-Qaeda and the Taleban have hideouts in his country. But he emphasises that it doesn't help to blame Pakistan, as US intelligence chief John Negroponte did, for not doing enough to defeat terrorism.

General Musharraf believes that the terrorists of the present day operating out of Pakistan territory - whether they are fighting in Afghanistan, setting off bombs in India or spreading terrorism around the world - are leftovers from the past miscalculations of outside powers. The US, having armed and used the Taleban to defeat the invading Soviet army, left Afghanistan to its own devices with the militants fully armed. Britain walked away from India and Pakistan leaving Kashmir unsettled. But General Musharraf didn't mention that one of his predecessors, Zia ul-Haq - another general who staged a coup - had a lot to do with building the power of these extremists.

The present reality is that if India willed it, Kashmir could be settled quite fast. That would undercut the influence the militants have on public opinion in Pakistan. That, in turn, would make it easier for the government to win the co-operation of its northern tribes to turn against Taleban and al-Qaeda members - who hide among them - and, of course, the militants who attack India. Does Dr Singh weigh that element in his strategic calculations? Not sufficiently, I think.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist



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