A pliant policy

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra at the American Jewish Committee's 97th annual dinner on May 8 in Washington. - MANNY CENETA/AFP

India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra at the American Jewish Committee's 97th annual dinner on May 8 in Washington. - MANNY CENETA/AFP

The U.S. is evidently pleased at India's offer of an olive branch. And India is only too eager to please the superpower in the process.

SINCE the offer of an olive branch by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, there has been intense diplomatic activity on the India-Pakistan front. Vajpayee's surprise initiative came a few weeks before the scheduled visit of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the subcontinent. Senior Bush Administration officials had been saying that they would move their focus to Palestine and South Asia once the war in Iraq was over. The Administration has come out with a "road map" to sort out the Israel-Palestine problem. But so far it has no official blueprint to solve the Kashmir problem, although senior U.S. officials routinely describe South Asia as the most dangerous part of the world.

Diplomatic sources say that there was behind-the-scenes pressure on New Delhi from Washington to be more flexible in its approach to Islamabad. New Delhi, like many other capitals in the world, was shaken by the seismic geopolitical changes that have occurred recently in West Asia. Although the Bush Administration has given India pride of place in its strategic calculations, policymakers in New Delhi had belatedly come to the conclusion that at least for the next couple of years Pakistan would be indispensable for the U.S. as it goes about implementing its doctrine of "permanent war".

In the last session of Parliament, Vajpayee mentioned Iraq four times to try and rationalise his foreign policy initiatives. U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill had long meetings with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani before the Prime Minister made his speech in Srinagar. The re-activation of militant Islamic groupings after the Iraq war will make Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf even more important for Washington. The Bush Administration's immediate focus on West Asia and Central Asia will also make Islamabad's role crucial. Diplomatic sources say that in order to placate Arab and Muslim sentiments before the invasion of Iraq, senior Bush Administration officials had promised a solution to the Kashmir conflict by remaining actively engaged in South Asia. Arab diplomats say that they consider Kashmir to be merely a territorial dispute between two countries. The Palestine issue, they emphasise, affects the very core of their political and spiritual life.

U.S. officials say that the Prime Minster's initiative was very much his own. Coming as it did before the Armitage visit, the initiative was appreciated at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. When National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra was in Washington in the second week of May, he met the U.S. President. This was no mean feat as the imperial Bush Presidency has in recent weeks snubbed senior officials belonging to traditionally friendly countries as Mexico, Chile and Canada, all because they had dared to take an independent stand in the U.N. Security Council against the war in Iraq.

President Bush is said to have conveyed his appreciation for the Vajpayee initiative and said that his administration would do everything possible to support India's move. (But both sides are keeping under wraps the exact contents of the 20-minute talk between Bush and Mishra.) Among others whom Bush met in the same week were the leaders of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia, all part of the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" in the war against Iraq.

In what many see as an unabashed bid to please the "neo-conservatives" who dictate policy in the Bush Administration, Mishra announced that Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi share common democratic values and face the same dangers. "India, the U.S. and Israel have some fundamental similarities. We are all democracies sharing a vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity. Stronger India-U.S. relations and India-Israel relations have a natural logic," the Prime Minister's National Security Adviser said in his address to an influential Jewish lobby group in Washington.

L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh had expressed similar views when they visited Israel as Ministers. "Mishra has no locus standi to make policy statements on such important matters affecting Indian foreign policy. He is not a Cabinet member, nor is he answerable to Parliament," said Eduardo Faleiro, who was External Affairs Minister under Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) opposed India's move to ally with Israel. "The speech made by Brajesh Mishra advocating an alliance between U.S., Israel and India indicates how the Vajpayee government is moving towards a complete shift in foreign policy," a CPI(M) statement said.

Mishra's talk about Israel being a pluralistic society comes at a time when the Zionist state is not willing to implement even the road map for peace proposed by its strongest backer, the U.S. It is now busy building more settlements in the Occupied Territories and displacing Palestinians inside its own territory. But evidently, Mishra was not speaking out of turn. A few days after his speech to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Indian External Affairs Ministry announced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would visit New Delhi soon. Sharon is unwelcome in most capitals of the world because of his track record. A Belgian court is hearing a war crimes-related case against him for his role in the massacre of Palestinians in Shabra and Shatilla. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's decision to cozy up with the Jewish lobby is to a large extent dictated by the desire to get the U.S. government's acquiescence for its tough stance on the issue of terrorism. Just two weeks before the Prime Minister's dramatic speech in Srinagar, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was talking about India's right to launch pre-emptive strikes across the border. Under "Pax Americana", the only other country that has been allowed to do so is Israel.

In yet another obvious effort to score brownie points with Washington, New Delhi let it be known that it was not averse to the deployment of Indian troops in Iraq. There were reports in the Indian media of troops being readied to be dispatched to Iraq. Diplomatic circles in Delhi said that one of the important goals of Armitage's visit was to convince New Delhi to participate more actively in the U.S.-sponsored "reconstruction" of Iraq. There were protests from Opposition parties against the Indian government's moves on Iraq. The CPI (M) condemned any move to deploy Indian troops in Iraq. The government later clarified that any Indian troop deployment in Iraq would only be undertaken with U.N. authorisation.

From available indications, Armitage did not receive a very effusive official welcome this time. He had told the Indian leadership during his visit in June 2002 that Musharraf had assured the U.S. President that Pakistan would "permanently" and "verifiably" end terrorist movement across the Line of Control (LoC). Indian officials feel that the Americans had not pressured Islamabad enough to meet its obligation to curb cross-border terrorism. During his recent visits to Islamabad and Delhi, Armitage had diplomatically refused to speak on the subject. The State Department has, however, acknowledged that infiltration across the LoC had gone down in the last one year. Senior Indian Army and Home Ministry officials have confirmed this fact. Diplomats point out that infiltration, which has traditionally been high in April-May after the snows melt, is negligible this year. Defence Minister George Fernandes stated in the second week of May that infiltration levels were coming down. The Pakistani side claims that more cooperation between the two sides would help curtail further the dribble of insurgents across the LoC. They say it is difficult to stop groups comprising two to three jehadis from crossing the difficult mountain terrain.

However, India is still talking tough on the infiltration issue. In the second week of May, Advani said that while friendship with Islamabad is desirable, New Delhi will first insist that cross-border terrorism should end and the terrorist infrastructure should be dismantled. The Indian side presented to the U.S. official "evidence" and "latest assessments" about terrorist camps, launching pads and communication networks on the other side of the border.

During his talks with the Indian leadership Armitage is said to have suggested that the onus was on New Delhi to assess the quality of steps taken by Islamabad to curb infiltration. During his short visit to Delhi, Armitage met the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the External Affairs Minister, the Finance Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Indian officials told the visitor that normalisation of ties would be done on a systematic basis, without dramatic initiatives akin to the Lahore and Agra summits. Armitage was told that Vajpayee's latest initiative was aimed to create the right environment for the Pakistani leadership to fulfil its commitments regarding ending infiltration across the LoC. Yashwant Sinha, during a visit to Moscow in the third week of May, said that what Pakistan has to do is to destroy the "reservoirs of terror" and not just reduce the level of infiltration.

India is not too impressed with the confidence building measures (CBMs) offered by Pakistan after Vajpayee's Srinagar initiative. The only positive outcome until the third week of May was that the two countries agreed on diplomatic representation at the highest level in each other's capitals. The Indian and Pakistani Ambassadors in Beijing will represent their countries in Islamabad and Delhi. The diplomatic community in Delhi, however, feels that the peace process is back on track. In all likelihood, the two Foreign Secretaries will meet in New York in September. There is a tradition of the Foreign Ministers of the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session. Civil aviation officials will have to meet soon so that civilian flights can resume. As part of its CBMs, Islamabad had proposed the resumption of flights between the two countries.

The Pakistan side is emphasising "people-to-people" links to accelerate the normalisation process. They want rail links to be restored. They feel that it would be a positive signal if the consular strength were restored to the old levels. Both the missions are ill-prepared to issue visas. Before January 2002, the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi was issuing 300 to 350 visas every day.

A positive development was the visit to India by a team of Pakistani parliamentarians in the second week of May. Although the all-party delegation was cold-shouldered by the Indian officialdom, they were welcomed warmly by most of the Opposition parties. The delegation was in India at the invitation of the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFD). Shaw Khan Khakwani, speaking on behalf of the delegation, told the media that lessons have to be learnt from past failures and efforts made "to build a sound edifice for a composite meaningful and sustainable dialogue". The MPs called for the "debarring" of the use of force by all the parties involved in the Kashmir dispute and condemned acts of terrorism against civilians. One of the MPs, Minoo Bhandara, said that terrorists were the enemies of not only India but also Pakistan. The parliamentarians were all praise for the reception they received in Maharashtra and West Bengal, two of the States they visited.

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