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Agra summit labours over Kashmir -- Vajpayee, Musharraf yield nothing in verbal match

Sukumar Muralidharan

AGRA, July 16

WELL over six hours after the visiting Pakistan President, Gen Pervez Musharraf, rescheduled his departure from Agra to continue discussions with the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the outcome of the historic summit meeting between the estrange d neighbours remains in doubt. Speculation continues to hold the field in an environment of complete opacity about the status of the talks.

Gen Musharraf's change of schedule renewed hope on both sides that an agreement could be crafted. This was the first positive signal to come out on a day when India and Pakistan seemed to be moving perilously close to a breakdown of mutual communications .

It was clear when the two leaders began their slated one-to-one dialogue just before 11 a.m. that a major effort would be needed to restore the possibility of a sustained engagement between their countries. All elements of symbolism were cut out as Mr Va jpayee and Gen Musharraf narrowed their focus to the substantive elements of a joint statement that would accommodate, without seeming to gloss over, the wide divergences on Kashmir.

The day's deliberations began against the background of a statement issued late last night by Major-Gen Rashid Quereshi, military spokesman for the visiting Pakistani President. By reaffirming the Pakistan position that a resolution of the Kashmir issue was an essential prerequisite for movement on any other matter of bilateral interest, Maj-Gen Quereshi was obviously seeking to dispel the notion that the Pakistan side had relented in some measure on its "core concern".

This impression had arisen just hours before, as a consequence of the account of the day's negotiations conveyed by the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Ms Sushma Swaraj.

A more conclusive rebuttal of Ms Swaraj's remarks -- which held the field as the Indian position until her own formal denial today -- was delivered by Gen Musharraf at his breakfast meeting with leading Indian journalists. "She talked about everything -- trade, prisoners of war, cross-border terrorism", said the Pakistan President in reference to Ms Swaraj's remarks, "but ladies and gentlemen, we spent most of our time discussing Kashmir."

The burgeoning controversy over her remarks compelled Ms Swaraj to issue a clarification. "I am not a saboteur," she said to a group of journalists at the Agra summit media centre. In a more broadly elaborated disavowal carried by various television netw orks, she admitted that Kashmir had indeed been discussed, and that her sole purpose yesterday was to highlight the issues that are of priority to India.

Most observers are convinced that Ms Swaraj's disclaimer of any intention to "sabotage" the talks was unnecessary. Rather, they are convinced that her remarks only indicated that the Indian and Pakistani delegations went into their talks with unbridgeabl e differences which persisted through the first day of talks.

Gen Musharraf made a brief concession to humour -- rare in the environment of gloom that was beginning to shroud the summit by the morning. Referring to India's insistence that Kashmir should be kept off the bargaining table, he mentioned that he had his own compulsions. If he did not insist on the primacy of Kashmir, he wryly admitted, he might as well seek to buy back his ancestral house in Delhi -- the Neharvali Haveli -- and take up permanent residence there.

The most that Gen Musharraf was willing to concede was at the verbal plane. It was necessary to mutually acknowledge that Kashmir was the primary cause of friction between the two countries, but then if India was averse to the word "dispute", he could as well settle for "issue" as a description.

As the two leaders resumed their negotiations this morning, a leading satellite television channel began broadcasting a recording of Gen Musharraf's breakfast meeting, complete with his opening remarks and the vigorous discussion that followed. This reco rding was reportedly obtained in accordance with a prior contractual arrangement with Pakistan TV, the only media organisation that had access to the breakfast encounter.

If Gen Musharraf's locutions at his breakfast meeting were reflective of the Pakistan delegation's negotiating approach, then it is easy to appreciate why progress towards bridging basic differences was meagre. Unfortunately, little information was forth coming from the Indian team till early this evening, when the text of Mr Vajpayee's opening statement at yesterday's meeting was released.

The Prime Minister is revealed to have assured Gen Musharraf that all outstanding issues between the two countries would be dealt with: "We look forward to a detailed exchange of views on all issues including that of Jammu and Kashmir. You are fully awar e of our views on this subject and we have heard yours. ... We are willing to address these differences and to move forward. But for this, it is important to create a conducive atmosphere. The terrorism and violence being promoted in the State from acros s the borders do not help to create such an atmosphere."

India has not, from all accounts, retreated from this affirmation of its basic position that cross-border terrorism must end for meaningful progress on Kashmir. Its willingness to make a verbal concession on Kashmir, whether as a "dispute" or an "issue" would then be dependent on credible efforts by Pakistan to rein in the Islamic warriors who have found a hospitable environment on its soil, and a measurable decline in levels of violence.

This would then raise the need for a "mechanism" to monitor progress, which is also believed to be on the negotiating table, though without a semblance of agreement as yet.

After working all through last night to arrive at acceptable phraseology, the two delegations were nowhere nearer bridging their differences in perception this morning. Both sides were uneasily aware that verbal craftsmanship alone would not take them fa r. Differences could be only momentarily papered over. Were the two leaders to respond to the inevitable demands for clarification from their domestic constituencies, the underlying differences would break through the facade of concord.

The Agra declaration, if one is to be issued, would clearly need to go beyond clever turns of phrase and institute credible mechanisms. Failing that, it would be rapidly consigned to the same receptacle that today houses its most recent predecessor, the Lahore declaration.

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