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Dramatic progress at Islamabad

Rasheeda Bhagat

Gestures and personal dynamics were as important as the bilateral Indo-Pak issues that dominated the recent SAARC Summit in Islamabad. But most significant was the joint statement issued to the media, where Pakistan said it would not allow any terror activity on its soil. And much of the credit for the thaw in relations should go to Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's statesmanship and initiative, says Rasheeda Bhagat.

IMPORTANT world leaders, including the most powerful of them all — the US President, Mr George W. Bush — called up the Pakistan President, Gen Pervez Muhsarraf, last month after he escaped the second bid on his life in 11 days, inquiring about his security cover and asking him to be careful. But it was not Mr Bush's concern that the General is basking under these days.

A beaming Pakistan President told a news conference in Islamabad, where a very successful SAARC summit was being wrapped up on Tuesday evening, that Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had telephoned him that morning and asked him to "take care".

This gesture underlines the importance and significance of what the Prime Minister said and did in Islamabad during the four-day SAARC meet. Newspaper readers will recall the front-page picture carried in most dailies on Monday morning, of Mr Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf shaking hands at their first meeting in Islamabad at the banquet hosted by the latter.

Also in the picture is the Pakistani Prime Minister, Mir Zafarulla Khan Jamali, but he is not looking at his President. His eyes are riveted on Mr Vajpayee, and there is a combination of tension, anxiety and even apprehension in his look that seems to say, and hope, that if Mr Vajpayee can hit it off once again with Gen Musharraf, all will be well.

Not surprisingly, the dynamics of Indo-Pak relations dominated the SAARC summit in Islamabad, and understandably enough, the other five member-countries did not complain. On the other hand, they cheered the thaw in the Indo-Pak relationship that had touched a new low in the last two years following the terrorist attack on Parliament.

For the smaller countries in this forum, it is imperative that India and Pakistan sink their differences before the South Asian group can make meaningful progress towards the common goals on its agenda.

But after the dithering for over a year on participating in the SAARC meet to be hosted by Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee finally cleared the way for his going, about six months ago, and announced a series of measures to normalise Indo-Pak ties. The stage seemed set for some substantial progress, for the first time in years. That did happen in Islamabad.

The seal has been put on SAFTA (the South Asian Free Trade Agreement), an anti-terror agreement — so important to India — has been signed, and several measures discussed to give both muscle and meaning to the group in terms of better regional co-operation and co-ordination. With this summit, surely, the smaller countries in the collective have breathed a sigh of relief.

In private conversations, be it in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal, top leaders had many a time expressed frustration that India, caught up with its problems vis--vis Pakistan, was missing a fantastic opportunity to take the lead in energising SAARC that would enable it to play its role and bring huge economic benefits to the smaller members; and herald India's arrival as a significant power.

But this time around in Islamabad, thanks entirely to Mr Vajpayee's statesmanship, the SAARC meet has been a huge success. Even though before the meet, Indian spokespersons had continued to sing the mantra that nothing bilateral can be discussed at a SAARC summit, the Islamabad summit did end up doing much of that. And these happened mainly due to Mr Vajpayee's initiative.

He not only called on Mr Jamali, but even sought a separate meeting with Gen Musharraf, which lasted for an hour, and then beat even the most optimistic expectation by picking up the phone on the last day of the visit to urge Gen Musharraf to "take care". A small but humane gesture that can do wonders for an inter-personal relationship.

Ask a successful manager what a solicitous gesture or a sincere personal inquiry can do to boost team morale and performance, and he will tell you of the importance of the personal touch. More often than not, women are better than men at this. But, then, as none of the chief protagonists in the Indo-Pak show in Islamabad is a woman, we will let that pass.

But returning to SAARC, where Indo-Pak bilateral issues became the unstated agenda and the result was the issuing of a magic joint statement to the media, something that did not happen even in Agra in July 2001. In the statement, Gen Musharraf reassured India that he would not allow any territory in the control of Pakistan to be used to support terrorism in any way.

Earlier, the General had said that though it was in his control to ensure a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities along the LoC, he could not "blow a whistle" and end the violence in Kashmir.

But he did acknowledge that his words were bound to have "some influence" in the Valley. An indirect way of acknowledging that it was well within his control to at least reduce the trauma and violence that people in the Indian side of Kashmir have been subject to in the last 14 years.

So, in more ways than one, the Islamabad SAARC summit took on a bilateral colour, with India and Pakistan deciding to hold a composite dialogue in India next month to take the peace process forward.

Of course, a lot of work was done in the background. In the Track II diplomacy process, it was the relentless endeavour of the Prime Minister's Security Advisor, Mr Brajesh Mishra, and his Pakistani contacts that made the joint media statement possible.

On his part, Gen Musharraf too has toned down the Kashmir aalaap. Surely, being at the receiving end of Islamic ultras, who are out to get him for allying with the US on Iraq and Afghanistan and the two attempts on his life must have done their bit to change his point of view.

His escaping the last attack by the merest whisker is a pointer to the fact that some elements in his inner security cordon have links with the jehadis out to get him.

This apprehension has virtually made the General a prisoner in his palace — a galling matter for an army chief who is supposed to take care of the security of an entire nation.

For the gallery, Gen Musharraf might brush aside the recent spate of attempts on his life by saying that he has the proverbial nine lives of a cat and all of them have not been "consumed" yet, but there is little doubt that he must be a worried man.

But the real hero responsible for hastening the thaw in Indo-Pak ties is, of course, Mr Vajpayee. More than anybody else, he has read the writing on the wall and has been saying in his public proclamations that the people's opinion in both countries is predominantly in favour of peace and good neighbourly relations. History will not forgive the leaders of the two countries if they fail to recognise this fact, he has warned.

Echoing his words is the tremendous goodwill that children like baby Noor, who had come to India for an open-heart surgery, found in India.

Till recently, wealthy and upper-class Pakistanis looked to the West for solutions to many of their medical problems, often paying 10 times more than similar treatment would cost in India.

Not only is India a more affordable destination for such people, the kind of support and affection some of the Pakistani patients — particularly children, who have caught the media's eye — have got from Indians, tells the story of what the people really want.

After baby Noor, a stream of children has been coming from Pakistan, and the latest is 16-month-old Mohammad Shahzad, who has received the gift of vision from the Chennai-based Dr Agarwal's Eye Hospital.

The child, who was born blind, underwent a corneal transplant here. The hospital chairman, Dr J. Agarwal, says: "Indo-Pak hostilities are just political. I'm sure the people don't hate each other."

These words bring to mind the image of the middle-aged Pakistani woman who came to India recently after the air links were re-established. Asked how it felt to be able to travel to India once again, all she could say, between sobs, was that she had nothing but tonnes of prayers to offer for the long life of both Mr Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf for making it possible for estranged families like hers to meet again.

(Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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