The time to talk

Print edition : January 19, 2002

New Delhi is in danger of overplaying its hand and losing the right moment to begin a process of reconciliation with Pakistan.

A MONTH after the December 13 Parliament House attack, New Delhi stepped up its diplomatic offensive aimed at extracting major "anti-terrorist" concessions from Islamabad. It was not a mere coincidence that this preceded United States Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to South Asia and Home Minister L.K. Advani's four "demands" upon Pakistan, submitted during his own visit to Washington. India was clearly worried at the possibility that President Perverz Musharraf would score some serious public relations points during his widely anticipated, and repeatedly postponed television address, in which he was expected to announce a "new policy" against terrorism and a "new turn" in relations with India.

Thus, a senior Ministry of External Affairs official briefed journalists on January 10 to put Pakistan on notice that India expected from Musharraf "substantial" positive measures against terrorist groups, short of which it would be "forced" to take "additional punitive measures". According to one report, these would range from sending back the Pakistani High Commissioner to abrogating the Indus Water Treaty, and include options such as closing India's Islamabad Mission and withdrawing Pakistan's most-favoured-nation trade status.

India has been particularly worried that Musharraf would limit himself to suppressing terrorism on "Pakistani soil". So India not only wants a statement of "inadmissibility of violence in pursuit of goals from Pakistan, including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir" (a "disputed" territory). It demands that Musharraf commit himself categorically to the "irreversibility of the process" too.

There is reason to believe that New Delhi has miscalculated the likely gains from these moves, and that it could be overplaying its hand by threatening measures even harsher than those imposed on December 21 and 27 (discussed in the previous Column: Frontline, January 18). This deliberately stiffened, "calibrated" stand not only risks losing the gains made in Kathmandu when Jaswant Singh, Brajesh Mishra and Abdul Sattar met more than once. More important, it could box India into a corner. India could be the loser.

The time has come for India and Pakistan to re-orient radically the strategies and postures adopted since December 13. India has so far pursued a strategy of nuclear brinkmanship. Pakistan has reluctantly yielded to "anti-terrorist" demands, after first denying the gravity of the Parliament House attack. It too is manoeuvring to extract a commitment from India to "a dialogue on Kashmir" before it takes further action against jehadi groups.

India's brinkmanship consists in taking on a belligerent, war-like posture, backed up by large-scale military mobilisation. This is calculated to get the U.S. to press Pakistan to take "visible" steps against terrorist groups. Deliberate ratcheting-up of hostility and harsh diplomatic sanctions are part of this strategy. India calculates that this will deliver more results than outright war (to which there will be significant domestic opposition), and that Pakistan can be bent to its will, through American mediation.

Cynical as it is, this strategy has admittedly had some success. Islamabad started acting against the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) within 48 hours of the U.S. banning them. It has since rounded up 300 suspects. The freezing of terrorists' accounts might not have had much effect (thanks to the advance notice some of them got), but that cannot be said about the arrest of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed or the detention of other key LeT and JeM leaders. And yet, the success is not so great that the Bharatiya Janata Party can declare that it has already "triumphed" against Pakistan and "put it in its place".

Brinkmanship is fraught with grave danger - in the last analysis, a nuclear conflagration. India's diplomatic effort is directed more at the U.S. than at Pakistan, and depends on variables outside the India-Pakistan relationship. Thus, it is not fully amenable to control. Military build-ups have a logic of their own. In the super-heated subcontinental context, a skirmish can snowball into a battle, which in turn can precipitate war.

India's political and diplomatic objectives are diffuse and open to subjective interpretation: how effective is "effective" action against terrorist groups? It has not stated what its criteria of effectiveness might be. India has, U.S.-style, demanded that Pakistan act, "or else". But unlike the U.S., it has not bothered to collect and share with Pakistan evidence on specific acts of violence, or back its case with U.N. resolutions, among other things.

Some Indian policy-makers and shapers see the present conjuncture as an opportunity to advance a much larger agenda than one confined to specific actions against terrorists responsible for December 13 or other recent acts. A few of them even think that the time has come to alter decisively the terms of military and political competition with Pakistan. That is why the list of 20 terrorists given to Pakistan is broad and long, going back to events and acts of a decade ago or older.

In New Delhi, there is no clarity about how far Musharraf can go in meeting India's demands. That is why all his actions are termed "cosmetic". There is severe underestimation of the opposition to him from jehadi groups, which have staged bomb explosions and killed his Home Minister's brother. It is all too easily assumed that being a military dictator, his power is unlimited and unchallenged. This too is a questionable premise.

India must revise radically its approach. Islamabad too must become firmer in its anti-terrorist actions. The wide world knows how deeply implicated its Inter-Services Intelligence has been in shadowy operations - in India, Afghanistan, and in Pakistan itself. After the Afghan war, the "plausible deniability" of its role is becoming incredible. Musharraf will make a signal contribution to Pakistan's stabilisation and normalisation if he cuts the umbilical cord between the ISI and Kashmiri militants - just as he did with the Taliban.

Musharraf is under pressure from the U.S., which in turn faces pressure not just from India but from its powerful pro-Israeli domestic lobby, which is alarmed at the possibility of a clandestine transfer of Pakistan's nuclear technology to anti-Western, anti-Jewish militants. The U.S. is deeply suspicious of the ideological, political, financial and military support Islamabad has extended over the years to extremist groups in South Asia, South-West Asia and West Asia. It has offered special funding to Musharraf to modernise and secularise madrassas. However, Musharraf cannot be pushed beyond a limit without jeopardising his very survival. For instance, his decision to arrest LeT's Hafeez was an extremely tough call, preceded by two day-long consultations and cautious calculations of a kind never before undertaken in Pakistan. A new U.S. congressional research report says that a crackdown on madrassas could well cost Musharraf his job.

This issue of Pakistan's culpability for "cross-border" terrorism has to be precisely defined. Musharraf is not wrong to ask just where Pakistan's liability for "terrorism" begins and ends. As The New York Times reported, he wants the U.S. Ambassador to say "how Washington could guarantee that India wouldn't wait for some new incident to occur, then claim that it was backed by Pakistan and use it as a pretext to go to war... What if some outraged Kashmiri takes a Kalashnikov and shoots an Indian politician or puts a bomb in a parking lot? Is Pakistan going to be held accountable every time?"

It is one thing for Musharraf to act against the gangsters and Khalistanis who have taken refuge in Pakistan. But acting against groups linked to Kashmir is another matter - because Kashmir is seen as impinging on Pakistan's core identity and Partition's "unfinished agenda". No Pakistani ruler can be seen to be indifferent to it. The Vajpayee government probably lacks an intelligent, nuanced, informed assessment of how much Musharraf can deliver. It is not paying heed to such counsel as it does have. Pushing Musharraf to breaking point would be extremely counterproductive. The critical test lies in deciding just what to settle for in the prevailing conditions - so that what is achieved conforms to certain principles, and advances both the national and regional interest. Asking that all the 20 men named by New Delhi, including Masood Azhar, should be handed over to it would be exceeding the limits of feasibility and legality.

There is no extradition treaty between India and Pakistan. Under international law, states are not obliged to hand over even known criminals without such a treaty. That too can be only done for specific offences, not some general category called "terrorist activity". Both Indian and Pakistani laws require that extradition requests be first referred to a magistrate who must confirm that a prima facie case exists.

Should it not be enough for India if Islamabad hands over to Interpol or some third party one or more persons in the suspects' list, who have proper charges and international Red Corner Notices against them? Is it realistic or right to imagine that New Delhi can substitute itself for what Washington did in Afghanistan - for instance, by getting Pakistan to arrest former Ambassador Zaeff and interrogating him? India is surely underestimating the strength of Pakistan's current equation with the U.S., which is not about to let it down after what Musharraf has done for Washington in Afghanistan.

PAKISTAN should definitely take stiff action against the terrorist groups which thrive within its borders. But countering terrorism will be a prolonged process. As soon as Pakistan begins it earnestly, India should resume a full dialogue with it and negotiate confidence-building measures, including joint patrolling of the Line of Control. That could inaugurate a new era in their relations, based on cooperation and good faith. It is of paramount importance that the Vajpayee government recognises a good deal - and a good exit from confrontation - when it is offered one. Or else, a precious window of opportunity could slam shut.

However, can the BJP-NDA leadership muster the courage to open a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations? For decades, the Jan Sangh-BJP-RSS have thrived on hostility with Pakistan, which in turn is linked to their anti-Muslim prejudices. For Hindutva, Indian Muslims are Pakistan's "Fifth Column", just as Pakistan is the external expression of Islam's "internal threat" to Indian "nationhood". Compounding this ideological bias is a pressing political issue - the coming Uttar Pradesh elections. If the BJP loses them, the NDA could come tumbling down nationally. By all indications, the BJP is set to do extremely badly in Uttar Pradesh. Its score could be as low as 100 seats in the 403-member Assembly.

The BJP has tried every trick in the book to avert defeat in U.P. - from browbeating the Opposition to luring potential supporters. Its last two trump cards were, ironically, mandal and mandir. It created quotas within the other backward classes (OBC) quotas for the most backward castes (MBCs), promising them 40,000 jobs. But there is no money to back that promise. And the MBCs are not taken in by what they consider a "Brahmin-Bania" party. The March 12 temple "deadline" plank is not turning out to be a vote-catcher. The "anti-terrorism" platform seems more promising. Vajpayee has himself advised the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to play down the temple issue; he is seeking the aid of the Kanchi Shankaracharya to pressure the BJP further.

"Anti-terrorism" allows the BJP to combine jingoistic nationalism with its anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim agendas. It can claim to be talking "tough" to Islamabad - to the point of "courageously" risking war. Wars, in the BJP's view, promote "a sense of patriotism and pride" among Indians. This, as Advani said immediately after the Kargil conflict (July 26, 1999), can only help a party like itself. The BJP thus hopes to polarise the situation communally and even put the secular parties on the mat.

This may turn out to be a desperate, even futile, hope. Macho anti-Pakistan postures are not as popular as might seem. The Kargil war, despite the politicisation of coffins and of death-as-a-spectacle, did not prevent the loss of half the BJP's UP Lok Sabha tally in 1999 nor a three percentage point fall in its national vote. The BJP's opponents, especially the Samajwadi Party and Congress, are far more upbeat than they were two years ago. Eventually, there may not be much purchase in the terrorism plank, barring a vote gain of a couple of percentage points.

Will the BJP stoop so low and pursue its brinkmanship recklessly for such measly gain? Will it be so mindless as not to recognise that its best medium- and long-term bet lies in putting Pakistan firmly on the road to moderation through cooperation, not confrontation? Will it choose ephemeral, compromised power in UP over the abiding national interest in mending relations with Pakistan and simultaneously combating the scourge of militant-group terrorism?

Here is Vajpayee's litmus test. If he has real leadership qualities, he should bring about a breakthrough with Pakistan rather than claim hyperbolically that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is the "biggest roadblock" to "greater, faster and more egalitarian" development. This is also his chance to think big, and beyond petty provincial calculations. Can he rise to the occasion? Or will he plunge a billion people into war, endless confrontation and more violence?

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor