The date was 12 October. The year, 1999. Kashmir’s Hurriyat Conference leaders were in Jodhpur jail that day when news came in that General Musharraf had taken power from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Hard line leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani was pleased that the prime minister who had welcomed India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore seven months earlier had been ousted, and the army chief who had not saluted Vajpayee when the latter crossed the border on a 'goodwill' bus was now the leader of Pakistan.
Seventeen years since then, almost to the day, the Hurriyat leaders are in jail again, but not in the same one. So, just in case there are significant changes in Pakistan, they might not discuss the news immediately. There are several other similarities, though, between what happened in 1999 and what has occurred in the recent months.
A dramatic rapprochement, led by the two prime ministers, had occurred when Vajpayee went to Lahore that February. It was followed a couple of months later by the discovery of Pakistani military incursions in the Kargil area. From May to July, there were fierce battles along the heights of Batalik, Tololing and Tiger Hill in the Kargil district.
Last 25 December, there was an almost equally dramatic (and even more sudden) show of warmth between the two countries’ prime ministers; Prime Minister Modi dropped in at Lahore on his way from Kabul to Delhi to attend Prime Minister Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding — on Sharif’s birthday.
The dampener on that detente turned up much faster than in 1999. Just a week after Modi’s visit came a shocking attack at an Indian Air Force facility at Pathankot. The attack at Uri on 18 September substantially worsened the two countries’ relations, albeit less so than the Kargil war did.
The reason that war ended within a couple of months was that the then US President Bill Clinton ticked off Prime Minister Sharif in Washington on 4 July, 1999. The resultant military pullback led to a face-off between Pakistan’s prime minister and chief of army staff, which made it evident that one of them would lose his job soon.
Sharif tried to replace Musharraf, while the latter was on an official visit to Sri Lanka. But Musharraf was ready with a backup plan: his key corps commanders ensured that Sharif was overthrown and the way was cleared for Musharraf’s takeover.
India’s strikes across the Line of Control on 29 September this year, in retaliation against the Uri attack, appear to have caused strains in the relationship between Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan’s current army chief, General Raheel Sharif. There were signs on Thursday that that unease might have become a face-off.
Three facts have given that potential face off an edge — or rather, a triple edge. One, the Pakistan Army’s 'clean up' in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) and against domestic terrorists made Raheel Sharif more popular than any Pakistani leader has been in several decades. Two, the general is about to retire in November; for him, the window of opportunity is closing. Three, Pakistani nationalism (which tends to centre on the army) has been consolidated following India’s high profile international campaign over Balochistan — and the way the situation in Kashmir and the Line of Control has been reported in Pakistan.
Of course, the two power centres in Pakistan could negotiate a recalibration of power over the next couple of weeks. The general could, for example, continue to head the army, possibly with the rank of field marshal, while the prime minister remained with an even further reduced role in security and foreign affairs.
It is worth asking what various international powers including the US and China would want. Would they prefer multiple power centres so that the army remains domestically leashed, and the situation in Pakistan might remain relatively stable? Or would world powers prefer a single centre of power with which to interact in Pakistan?
India’s preferred answer to those questions might seem like a foregone conclusion. Undoubtedly, the continuation of a civilian government would restrain the army’s belligerence somewhat.
However, it is worth considering that the best possibility for the two countries to eventually come to an agreement over the intractable Kashmir issue would be for leaders as strong and nationalist as Narendra Modi and the putative President-cum-General Raheel Sharif to be in place. After all, five years after Musharraf's coup, he had sidelined hardliner Geelani (the one who had welcomed his coup from jail). By then, some of those who had disagreed with Geelani in that jail were on board 'the Musharraf plan' for peace — which Geelani rejected as a betrayal.
It is of course also true that Modi and Raheel Sharif's personas as much as the kind of political and geopolitical positioning, on which the careers have thrived — not to speak of the hyper-aggressiveness among many sections on both sides of the border — would seem to make a hope for peace from the two strongmen, wishful thinking.
After all, if wishes were horses, they could too easily turn into cavalry.