A balancing act

Print edition : January 19, 2002

Home Minister L.K. Advani succeeds in conveying to the U.S. India's concerns about Pakistan-supported cross-border terrorism but his hosts are unwilling to displease President Pervez Musharraf.

HOME Minister L.K. Advani's visit to Washington was an event that both India and the United States had been looking forward to. From India's perspective, Advani is articulate and sharp in his assessments and, as Home Minister, is in a better position than anyone else to talk about the terrorism-related problems faced by the country. And, in the view of Washington, Advani is a senior functionary within the Bharatiya Janata Party, a known hawk and a potential prime ministerial candidate.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani with President George Bush at the White House.-

Advani met the top line-up in Washington, including President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Besides interactions with the media in Washington, Advani had a luncheon meeting with scholars, think tanks and government officials who are interested in South Asian affairs. And, as some of his colleagues have done in the past, the Home Minister met American Jewish leaders over dinner.

From a bilateral point of view, Advani and his delegation, which included the Home Secretary and the head of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), had their work cut out. The focus was on fine-tuning some of the mechanisms that had been worked out in the past three years. These included treaties on extradition and mutual legal assistance, a joint working group on terrorism and a joint initiative on cyber terrorism.

There were at least two other aspects that merited attention. First, Advani and his delegation are said to have given to the Justice Department copious material on 20 terrorists most wanted for acts of terrorism in India. The documents included a "list" of people who may be of "interest" to other countries such as the U.S. too. Secondly, there was concern over the fate of Indian nationals who were detained in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks in Washington and New York. Many of them are said to be visa violators. The Bush administration maintains that they can be given consular access only if they ask for it and that it follows the Vienna Convention in dealing with them.

The three-day visit had little of atmospherics and a lot of substance. At the end of the day, the U.S. and India had a better understanding of each other's position. The visitors gave the Bush administration a rather elaborate picture of the problem of terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism, in the subcontinent, and conveyed the message that there will be no forward movement on the ground unless Islamabad followed up its statements with substantive action.

The Republican administration too had a message, which was articulated by the President and the Secretary of State. It was plain and simple: Washington was prepared to apply more pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to take action against terrorists but India should also take some reciprocal steps. The argument in some circles is that after sustaining terror outfits for two decades Pakistan cannot crack the whip and expect results in a matter of days. In fact, even while appreciating the Bush administration's actions in the past few weeks, congressional sources do not want Musharraf to be pushed over the edge - a prospect that the White House is concerned about and wants countries like India to understand.

Advani's agenda was clear-cut. He was looking at issues from global, regional and bilateral angles. But much as he may have wanted to move away from a terrorism-centric agenda, it worked out just that way in the end. However, for the record it is maintained that the visit addressed the broader aspects of Indo-American relations, which have acquired new depth and width in the past two years.

At his press conferences at the White House, the State Department and the Indian Embassy and in his address to a gathering of Indian Americans, Advani focussed on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. The bottom line of his message was that Islamabad should abandon terrorism as an instrument of state policy. He told his hosts gently but firmly that Musharraf would be judged not by what he said but by what he did.

The high point of Advani's visit was his meeting with Bush, who dropped by at the meeting between the Home Minister and Condoleeza Rice. Addressing the media at the White House, Advani said: "By and large I would say that this most important meeting of my trip brought me immense satisfaction. The President is determined to see what he has been saying since September 11 is actually implemented." But he insisted that Bush did not repeat what he has been saying all along - that India should "take note" of the steps taken by Musharraf on the terrorism front. "At least today nothing was said in this manner but by and large India has to take note of everything, whatever has been happening," he said in reply to a question. In his view, there has not been any let-up in cross-border terrorism.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, with Advani, at a press conference outside the State Department in Washington.-STEPHAN J. BOITANO/ AP

At a packed press conference at the Embassy of India on the day he met Powell and Ashcroft, Advani accused Pakistan of fomenting trouble in Jammu and Kashmir and ridiculed Musharraf's statements drawing a distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters. "To call a terrorist a freedom fighter is really something incomprehensible and unacceptable," he said.

With the presence of the armies of India and Pakistan on the border, "not even a stray dog" can cross over unless it has been facilitated by the state, Advani said. At all his engagements in Washington, he issued a blunt warning to Pakistan: "We shall not take another betrayal. Pakistan must act - sincerely, decisively, demonstrably and speedily."

The "touchstone" of Islamabad's sincerity, according to Advani, will be the way it responds to the four "legitimate" demands of India. The demands were: hand over the 20 terrorists, many of them Indian nationals, mentioned in the list submitted by India; close all facilities, including training camps, provided to terrorists and stop direct and indirect assistance to them; stop sending arms and men into Jammu and Kashmir and other areas in India; and renounce terrorism in all its manifestations, categorically and unambiguously.

If Advani and his delegation learnt something about the Republican administration during their visit, it is the way in which its political cards are played. On the day Advani criticised Pakistan and all it stood for, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The President is appreciative of the actions taken by President Musharraf. President Musharraf has taken some positive steps... The President believes there's additional work and President Musharraf is moving forward. And the President reminds all in the region that the war there is against terrorism, and not a war between India and Pakistan."

The Bush administration's faith in Musharraf seemed to have been reinforced by his address to the people of Pakistan on January 12. This was evident from the reported statement by a senior State Department official that the speech provided "a basis for both sides to ratchet down the tension". The speech, according to the official, "marks a break with the violence of the past in Kashmir and Pakistani society as a whole".

At the same time, Washington's approach was tempered by an element of caution. A day before Musharraf's much-expected speech, Powell said: "The Indians are looking for action and substance as well as the right policy statements and so tomorrow is an important day... I think it's also important to note that you can't expect every action to be taken at the same time you're giving a speech, which is a policy statement, and so I've been saying to the Indians, let's see what President Musharraf says and let's see what actions are taken at the time of the speech and also after the speech." The Secretary of State also made it clear that the speech should not be seen as a total response on the part of Musharraf.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor