It was like being in a time warp when Pakistan’s former president, General Pervez Musharraf, spoke at an India Today conference in Delhi last night (March 7).
His focus was on past peace efforts between India and Pakistan, and why they had failed – and what he had done as president to try to make them work. His theme was that a peace deal on the two countries’ disputed Jammu & Kashmir border was essential, and that India needed to change more than Pakistan to make that possible.
But he said virtually nothing on major events of the past year or so – from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, to the terrorist attack on Mumbai that killed 170 people last November and last Tuesday’s attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore – nor the worrying Sharia law agreement reached by Pakistan with Taliban extremists in Swat, just 100 miles north of Islamabad.
It was almost as if these events hadn’t happened, and the Taliban crisis hadn’t escalated in Pakistan, which Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s home minister, described last week as “not a failed state but……threatening to become one”.
Surprisingly, Musharraf also made scarcely any mention of semi-formal “back channel” negotiations between India and Pakistan during his time in power. Good progress on ways to soften the disputed Jammu & Kashmir border, and solve some specific border issues such as the disputed Siachen Glacier, were being made but the initiative died when Musharraf’s power declined and he lost the presidency.
As he arrived last night and walked through the crowd outside the banqueting hall, Musharraf looked less substantial and confident than when he was Pakistan’s military ruler. But he soon smartened up on stage, saluted the audience several times, and then settled down to the mixture of battle readiness and ardent peacenik that we grew used to during his presidency.
He was on the stage for well over two hours, till around 11pm, making his speech and answering questions – some far from friendly – from the audience as well as from Arun Poorie, founder and head of the India Today media group.
His biggest admission was that India and Pakistan had done “a lot of meddling” in each other’s internal affairs. “Your RAW does exactly what the ISI does, and the ISI does exactly what RAW does,” he said, referring to both countries’ secret services, which encourage unrest – and, allegedly, terrorist attacks – on each other’s territory.
“Let us tell RAW and ISI to stop their confrontations,” he said teasingly, adding later: “The past has been dirty….the past has been bad, but don’t put the blame on Pakistan…You correct your house so that terrorism in Pakistan decreases”.
In people’s minds as he made these remarks was India’s belief, shared by the US, UK and other countries, that the terrorists who carried out the Mumbai attack came from Pakistan. There have also been amazing allegations from Pakistan that India’s RAW was behind the Lahore cricket attack. But Musharraf steered clear of specific cases.
His biggest departure from the truth was that “the ISI and [Pakistan] Army is totally on board with bringing peace with India….totally on board with my talks with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh”. That drew sighs of disbelief verging on jeers from the audience.
His biggest accusation against India was: “Terrorists in Afghanistan visit here [Delhi] and I’ve seen pictures of them…..I know of [name unclear] terrorist sitting in Kabul who comes here and is welcomed by your organisations……I will give you a list of people who come here [from Kabul]”.
Though occasionally rattled, he showed throughout that he has lost none of his skills as a public performer on a political and diplomatic tightrope. He said nothing that would upset the government in Pakistan, which he depends on for his freedom, and made enough constructive remarks to satisfy his hosts.
At the end, he got a standing ovation – for effort if not for content.