A delicate mission

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell comes calling with a soft-sell approach to issues of bilateral engagement, India remains cautious in its response.

INFORMED speculation in Washington has it that Colin Powell is a rapidly diminishing Secretary of State, only continuing in the U.S. administration because he sees himself as the last bulwark against the loony Right. Disregarded on the West Asian crisis and the U.S. attitude towards the United Nations, the former General has also been overruled in his advocacy of an accommodative approach in foreign policy, one that looks upon the threat of military force not as the first premise of diplomacy but as the final arbiter.

Where the South Asian theatre is concerned, Powell's conciliatory instincts continue to enjoy some trust within the U.S. administration. Concord rather than confrontation may be a genuine article of faith for Powell. But in the bristling South Asian theatre, this deeply held belief evidently meshes with contingent and opportunistic interests of the George Bush administration.

Powell arrived in Delhi shortly after two other high dignitaries - British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. While Straw was cryptic and uncommunicative in his interactions with the media, Solana in his rather brief public appearance seemed to concede the Indian government's point that Pakistan still needed to do more before its credentials as a reliable ally in the war against terror could be admitted.

As he embarked for Delhi, Powell issued a similar assessment of the situation in South Asia, without specifically putting on Pakistan the onus for improving matters. Infiltration across the border between Pakistan and India had diminished, he said, but not ceased entirely as Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf had promised. In toning down earlier statements, which had verged on endorsing Pakistan's claims of complete abstinence from the sponsorship of terrorism, Powell was obviously seeking to ensure for himself some relevance in Delhi.

It was only in the early part of June that the Indian defence establishment was leaking stories about a plan to take out terrorist training camps through an armed thrust into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The Defence Secretary was casually warning that the lack of democratic processes in Pakistan rendered its nuclear threshold an unknown entity. The nuclear component had been factored into Indian calculations in the form of the capacity to retaliate appropriately when attacked. And for this, said the high official from India's defence establishment, it was necessary to be "prepared for mutual destruction on both sides".

Clearly, both sides were rapidly approaching the threshold of lunacy, the carnage in an Army camp in Jammu on May 14 turning out to be a particularly aggravating factor. But as international mediators stepped in, India toned down its war talk, especially after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage extracted an assurance from Pakistan that cross-border infiltration would end and terrorist organisations working in Kashmir would be curbed.

After the July 13 attack in a Jammu shantytown, India made yet another appeal that Pakistan be declared a terrorist state. This was rebuffed with little ceremony. Pakistan had been a "stalwart ally" in the struggle against terrorism, said the official spokesman of the U.S. State Department. And there was no question of ostracising it in the manner of other states that inhabit the U.S. pantheon of demons.

This was not just the kind of profession of neutrality that has in the past proved an enormous irritation in New Delhi, but a positive endorsement of Pakistan. To be sure, the impact was cushioned by the U.S. having just a few days earlier ruled out of court any possibility that the future status of Jammu and Kashmir could be determined through plebiscite. But just so the message was not lost, the absolute refusal to name Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism was reiterated by the spokesperson of the U.S. President within days.

Since their shared border began bristling with tension, India and Pakistan have been carefully monitoring statements from Washington. Visitors from Western capitals have been frequent fliers to both countries. And as tensions were talked up, there was a sufficient number of loose references to the nuclear dimension to convince Western governments to issue grim advisories to their citizens to avoid the region.

This was obviously a little more than what either side had bargained for. But given the delicate state of the U.S.' relations with the Muslim world and the exigencies of its "war on terrorism", there was little chance of it going the full distance in pressuring Pakistan to cease its sustenance of the Kashmir militancy. The norm of honouring the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as an inviolable frontier had been firmly established by the Clinton administration. This has since been reiterated by Bush. But the norm that India has been pressing for - of holding Pakistan responsible for every terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir - is far from gaining acceptance.

When Powell began his journey to Delhi, it was widely expected that along with a public endorsement of the Indian position that Pakistan should do more that it had, there would be a specific list of demands placed upon India. Opening talks with Pakistan on Kashmir was one of the demands. And in this, Powell underlined what Straw had suggested just a few days earlier. The U.S. was careful, however, not to lay down any specific deadlines for talks. That would necessarily have to be decided by the two neighbours, Powell said, in an acknowledgment that both countries are entering into electoral exercises - Pakistan at the national level and India in the sensitive State of Jammu and Kashmir - and would need some flexibility in determining when to resume their bilateral engagement.

Powell was not quite so delicate in pointing out to India that it needed to go the extra mile in ensuring that the electoral process in Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed international credibility. India would only enhance its own image if it were to release political prisoners from Jammu and Kashmir and allow international observers in to monitor the exercise of the franchise, he said.

India remained cautious in its response. Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh has, in the past, said that observers from any quarter of the world are free to visit Jammu and Kashmir at any time. But following counsels of caution from the government this seemingly open invitation was withdrawn. Other sections have said in recent times that India has nothing to lose from allowing neutral observers in Jammu and Kashmir. But the old reservations about submitting India's democratic credentials to international scrutiny remain strong. And now with the U.S. having decided to place explicitly this demand upon India, the government will be obliged to come up with convincing arguments one way or the other.

A factor that is working to India's advantage is Musharraf's proposed "only graduates need apply" elections in Pakistan, which have no credibility at all in the estimation of the international community. Guided democracy under the Army's supervision has been tried in Pakistan at various times in the past - most notably by Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq. There is little reason to believe that Musharraf will enjoy any greater success than his two unlamented predecessors. But the fortuitous coincidence of concurrent elections in Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir should be an occasion for India to enhance its posture in the world community as a country that is committed to genuine participative democracy.

The Indian security and intelligence establishment has sought to win over some of the militant ranks by jailing the more uncompromising figures and working on those that have seemed more amenable to dialogue. But Powell's specific suggestion that political prisoners be released, challenges this strategy in a basic fashion. Since tensions started building following the attack on the Parliament premises last December, international diplomacy has generally run in India's favour. Musharraf was obliged in January to come up with certain stringent new formulations on the conduct of religious institutions and militant units in Pakistan. Subsequently, in June, he was asked to match words with deeds. His refrain has been that he can go so far and no further. That if he is to retain his relevance in Pakistan's highly fractured society, he should have evidence of reciprocity from India.

Powell's recent visit is evidence that the U.S., for one, has decided that it is time Musharraf got his reward.

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