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Seema Mustafa is the former Political Editor and Delhi Bureau Chief of The Asian Age newspaper.

Gen. Kayani cannot be ignored in Indo-Pak talks

There can be no doubt that the Army controls Pakistan, and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani controls the Army.

great deal is being made of talking, or for that matter, not talking to the Pakistan Army. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has denied reports of back channel contacts with Pakistan Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani after two days of virtual silence, and the entire government machinery seems to have gone into its usual state of denial on this issue.

The point is not whether a special envoy of Prime Minister Singh was rushing to and from Islamabad, or some other capital in the world, after cloak and dagger meetings with the taciturn Kayani. The point is whether New Delhi should or should not talk to the Pakistan Army. There can be no doubt that the Army controls Pakistan, and Kayani controls the Army. Thus, if a dialogue has to be held Kayani will be the centrepiece on that side of the border.

The Pakistan People's Party that is currently in government is at best a fig leaf for the Army there. President Asif Ali Zardari and his Prime Minister do not have powers independent of the Pakistan Army, and while they have some autonomy, in day to day functioning, in terms of strategic policy, foreign relations, and defence the Army rules the roost. The reason that Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif is not in power, and might not be for a while, is that the Army does not completely trust him and his relations with the men in uniform remain skewed. Of course, if by some chance he is elected to power, Pakistanis themselves are clear that the hostility between Sharif and the Army will be replaced overnight with a bonhomie calculated to keep the PML-N in power.

But the first step is, of course, for New Delhi to make up its ever changing mind. Does the government here want to continue talks with Pakistan seriously? Or is it still in an either-or mode? If it wants to talk, then it will have to get Kayani on board through direct access, as the men and women in Pakistan's Foreign Office have little autonomy in decision making. Relation with India has always been a subject under the direct control of the Army in Pakistan, and this has certainly not changed with the exit of former President Pervez Musharraf.

It is not a major revelation to say that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani came to India for the India-Pakistan cricket semi-final after the visit was cleared by the Army. He would not have been able to board the flight had Kayani not smiled. This General is in command, and despite the continuing military action against the people, retains the support of the soldier. At least till now. This is largely because he has continued to bargain in the perceived interests of the Army with the United States, and has stayed out of the media spotlights by simply remaining unavailable. He is not interested in publicity unlike his predecessor and while controlling politics, shows little interest in becoming the politician in uniform. This has all gone to his credit, in that it has ensured him a long life with one extension as Army chief already in the bag.

Kayani has confined himself more or less to the cantonment, and is not visible, except occasionally, in the civilian sectors. The result is that those rooting for democracy are able to focus on the civilian heads of state and government, and talk of strengthening democracy in Pakistan. The fig leaf has worked, and in the process allowed the Army to consolidate its hold on matters of strategic importance.

Kashmir remains a passion with the Pakistan Army, and there is no indication that it has had second thoughts on this issue. However, its main focus at the moment is the war against terrorism and Afghanistan where it is fighting to retain its hold even as it manages the Americans, and more recently India. The strategic depth provided by Afghanistan for the Pakistan Army still remains vital, and Kayani, like Generals before, and no doubt after him, is not likely to relinquish vital ground on this front.

He has managed to improve relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai from freezing to almost warm levels and this has ensured a level of cooperation that Afghanistan was resisting earlier.

All said and done, if Singh has not dispatched a special envoy to open direct links with Kayani as reported by the British media, it is time he did so. It would be a far better bet than relying on the Americans to protect Indian interests when this is not part of their vision (or lack of it) for the region.

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