A failure India cannot afford

Print edition : June 06, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee must persistently press on with the welcome process of improving relations with Pakistan, or a historic opportunity will slam shut thanks to mere wooden-headedness.

SO delicate, problematic and fragile is the state of India-Pakistan relations, and so unsure and suspicious are their leaders of one another's intentions, that the two governments have only made painfully slow, unsteady and hesitant progress towards normalising their relations in the weeks that have passed since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made his "hand of friendship" offer on April 18. The two establishments are drawing up "road maps" and tentative confidence-building measures (CBMs). India has announced the posting of Shiv Shanker Menon as its High Commissioner in Islamabad but, at the time of writing, Pakistan has not yet named his counterpart.

Even on the issue of restoring civil aviation links, there are divergences despite Pakistan's initial response welcoming the proposal. India interprets this as giving overflight rights to civilian aircraft of both flags as well as resuming direct flights. Apparently, Pakistan is hesitant to accept this broader interpretation because this means India will regain the easy access it had to Afghanistan before December 2001 through Pakistani air space. On trade too, India complains that the progress is inadequate.

The slow pace is not surprising given the baggage of mutual suspicion and resentment that the two governments carry, especially after the Agra fiasco and their divergent views of its causes. (India attributes the Agra Summit failure to Pakistan's inflexibility over defining Kashmir as the "core issue". Pakistan blames India, specifically Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, for going back on a mutually agreed draft declaration.) But there is a real danger that the positive momentum generated by Vajpayee's overture and by Pakistan's response will be lost unless moves towards reconciliation are considerably speeded up. The risks of yet another failure to resolve the outstanding disputes will be forbidding.

There are four main reasons for this. First, this is a singularly opportune moment for acknowledging that military force, whether overt or covert, cannot resolve any India-Pakistan problem. This is the vital lesson from Operation Parakram and the 10 month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation after the December 13 attack on the Parliament House as well as from Pakistan's failure to force India to the negotiating table on Kashmir despite 13 years of trying.

In plain truth, what India and Pakistan have both practised in recent years is a de facto policy of compellence. After December 2001, India sought to bend Pakistan to its will by mobilising 700,000 troops on the border and demanding that Islamabad hand over 20 terrorists on the "wanted" list. Pakistan responded to India's build-up by deploying 300,000 soldiers on the border. Both ratcheted up their war machines to dangerous levels and at least twice came close to the brink of actual combat with a disturbing, acknowledged, potential for escalation to the nuclear level.

However, coercion failed. Compellence is different from deterrence. Deterrence is about preventing your adversary from doing what you do not want him to do by threatening "unacceptable damage". Compellence is about forcing him to do what you want him to do. Deterrence can, theoretically, work between equal as well as unequal adversaries provided they can assuredly inflict unconscionable damage upon each other. It does not matter much if one of them has 3,000 nuclear missiles and the other "only" 800. Both can wipe out each other. In practice, deterrence is fraught, unstable, degenerative and prone to failure.

Compellence is even more fraught. It assumes a significant asymmetry or disproportion between rivals. You cannot compel your adversary unless you have overwhelming superiority over him. In the India-Pakistan case, the degree of asymmetry essential to compellence does not exist. An overall conventional superiority of 1.5-to-1 or less and a nuclear-level disproportion of, say, 3-to-1 is no good.

Thus, even within the traditional (and flawed) framework, it was unrealistic of India and Pakistan to expect compellence to work when they do not even have stable mutual deterrence. The dangers of raising their military standoff to its highest pitch to achieve compellence are even greater because of their strategic hostility, complicated by competing notions of nationhood, territorial disputes, mutual distrust and factors related to religion. Within this perspective, abandoning coercion-centred approaches and using diplomacy is a long-overdue correction. It is time for both states to recognise that coercion has turned unacceptably counter-productive.

For instance, Operation Parakram cost India much more than the estimated Rs.7,000 crores to Rs.10,000 crores, an amount that was spent for the mobilisation alone. As many as 387 Indian soldiers died. Only 99 perished in combat. Twice as many died in accidents or from psychological or environmental strain. A high number (75) died from landmine blasts. Another 1,051 were injured.

The civilian toll was even higher if displacement, collapse of agriculture, loss of livelihoods near the border, and damage from landmines are put together. According to a survey in The Hindustan Times, over 900 civilians died in landmine blasts. More than 1.5 million mines were planted, mainly in Rajasthan, and of these only 70 per cent have been removed. Parakram was a Faustian bargain.

Second, India and Pakistan have both repeatedly used another identical strategy mounting pressure on each other through a third agency, the United States, which they both ardently woo. Thus, India has tried hard to persuade the U.S. to pressure Pakistan on the terrorism issue. Pakistan has done the same on Kashmir. The U.S. role in defusing the Kargil crisis and last year's stand-off did not arise in a vacuum. Both states strained to win it.

This too is no longer viable. The main message delivered by Armitage in his five meetings with Indian leaders was that the U.S. will not involve itself in determining whether or not Musharraf has delivered on his June 2002 promise to end "cross-border" infiltration into India. It is "up to India" alone to make that assessment and respond appropriately and "that's not my [Armitage's] job". Armitage also reportedly told his Indian interlocutors that Washington would not apply diplomatic and economic pressure to ensure Pakistan's compliance with Musharraf's promise.

Logically, then, India must take the bilateral route and discuss all outstanding issues with Pakistan, on pain of attracting onerous pressure from the U.S., which is adopting a particularly aggressive posture as it embarks on building a new Empire, in which the war on Iraq is the first step. It is not only because of subtle U.S. goading in the recent past but because of the apprehension that American pressure would become overt and unbearable in the near future that Vajpayee made his April 18 overture. His reference to Iraq's lessons for "developing countries" is best seen as an awkward acknowledgement of this. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha confirms this in an interview to The Asian Age (May 14): "There is a new reality after Iraq, forcefully brought home to all countries. The developing countries, the weaker countries at this point of time, have to make a realistic assessment."

Third, there has been a significant improvement in the Kashmir situation after a largely credible, if imperfect, election and the installation of a broad-based coalition government. The government's promise of a "healing touch" has found favour in the Valley. This is the right time to normalise relations with Pakistan. As the killing of pro-ceasefire Hizbul Mujahideen leader Abdul Majid Dar suggests, the situation is still delicate and vulnerable to extremist sabotage. It would be unwise not to make the most of its positive aspects, including the Hurriyat Conference's response welcoming an India-Pakistan dialogue.

Fourth, there is only a limited interval of time available for getting a reconciliation process under way. Elections to four State Assemblies in India are due by October/November. These elections will have a trend-setting character for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the timing of the next Lok Sabha elections. After August or September, the BJP might not want to pursue what some of its leaders regard as a risky "soft" line on Pakistan. If the party, out of desperation, mounts a blatantly communal election campaign, it will be tempted to fall back upon the familiar anti-Pakistan line favoured by its core supporters.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is already showing its aversion to any negotiation of the Kashmir issue. It cites the 1994 Parliament resolution to demand that the only outstanding issue pertaining to Kashmir is the return of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Close supporters of Advani too have put their own spin on Vajpayee's "hand of friendship" offer, as was evident in V.K. Malhotra's distorted briefing on Pakistan Prime Minister Jamali's invitation to Vajpayee to visit Pakistan. The Sangh Parivar is preparing the ground for a future change of stance.

THE Indian government is taking a highly cautious approach, one favouring the Two-plus-Six formula worked out by the two foreign secretaries in 1997 but regrettably never pursued. Caution is fine, even unexceptionable. But an excess of it could be damaging. A moderate amount of caution must be supplemented by a purposive attempt to prepare the NDA, in particular the BJP, for the new turn vis-a-vis Pakistan. Vajpayee's leadership will be on test here. So far, he has not made the necessary effort by holding focussed discussions with key figures in the party or Sangh Parivar as a whole.

Vajpayee's task will not be easy. He has been complicit in the BJP's attempt to create and exploit an Islamphobic climate on the issue of "terrorism". Over the past decade or more, an aggressive, jingoistic nationalism has taken root in India, which the BJP has further communalised by demonising Pakistan and vilifying Islam as an intrinsically intolerant religion prone to extremism. Within this scheme, itself reinforced by the saffronisation of education and of cultural institutions, Indian Muslims figure as Pakistan's Fifth Column and their religion as the fount of "global terrorism". September 11 gave this vilification campaign a degree of legitimacy and international support. The Iraq war has encouraged maniacal elements such as Praveen Togadia to use a "clash of civilisations" rationale and demand that India support U.S. war efforts.

India's social and political discourse has been so badly vitiated that large numbers of urban middle class people, especially the young, now spout rabid, inflammatory anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Middle class audiences on television talk shows reflect this. In the Question Time-India programme on BBC World on May 2, Shiv Sena rabble-rouser Sanjay Nirupam won applause for demanding that India must send suicide-bombers to kill Pakistani citizens randomly.

This climate is perhaps more intolerant and vicious in India than in Pakistan. There, "Crush India" slogans painted on city walls a decade ago are fading. In India, we have, thankfully, never had a public display of an identical kind so far. But today the same toxic, jingoistic sentiment finds expression here albeit on paper, in sound bites and email circuits.

Urban Indian youth are probably more viscerally hostile to Pakistan and more dismissive of the very possibility of peaceful coexistence with it than the other way around. An impressionistic measure of this disturbing change is found in a May 11 article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn by Anwar Abbas, who reports on a letter exchange programme between school students of the two countries. Abbas took Pakistani students on a tour of India in 1997 and 2001. He compares the comments in letters written to them by their Indian pen-friends with the strident anti-Pakistan declamations by Indian students aired on a recent Indian TV programme on which he was interviewed. The results are embarrassing. This climate can be changed. That demands more people-to-people contact and personal exposure, which alone will convince people that ordinary Indians and Pakistanis can have normal interaction, even friendship, with one another. This makes it imperative that India and Pakistan aim not just to return to the pre-December 13 situation but go beyond it through cessation of hostile rhetoric, diffusion of rivalry and relaxed visa regimes as well as trade and military CBMs.

To achieve this, Vajpayee will have to spell out the true rationale for India-Pakistan reconciliation as a precondition for social sanity, peace and prosperity in all of South Asia. He will also have to assert himself, most of all within the Sangh Parivar. If he does not rise to the task, we will all pay a heavy price through ruinous India-Pakistan hostility, strife and instability.

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