The aftershocks

Print edition : June 20, 1998

Having established a fateful linkage between its nuclear tests and the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, the BJP-led Government seems unable to cope with the consequences.

INDIA and Pakistan spoke across each other, while the groupings of the rich and powerful spoke down at both. Special emissaries from India concurrently opened a parallel dialogue with key decision makers from the nuclear weapon states. The discourse within the country though, remained as muddled as ever. Having established a fateful linkage between its nuclear tests and the neighbourhood dispute with Pakistan, the BJP-led Government seemed out of its depth in dealing with the consequences. And even as the parallel initiatives continued on the world stage, the effort to build a domestic consensus was conspicuously absent.

The Foreign Ministers of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the P-5) met in Geneva to issue a joint communique on the new realities in South Asia. This constituted the basis for a resolution by the U.N. Security Council two days later. India responded in a tone of injured hauteur. The Security Council resolution was a gross affront to the world's largest democracy and a "grotesque" way of addressing a country that was home to one-sixth of humanity, said a rather aggrieved note from the Ministry of External Affairs.

Greater adversity was to follow when the G-8, comprising seven of the world's most industrialised nations and the Russian Federation, raised the pitch of coercive intent a few octaves. In addition to the demands that had been made by the Security Council, the G-8 added a further prospect: that they would coordinate efforts to block the sanction of multilateral institutional finance to both India and Pakistan.

The United Nations Security Council votes on a resolution condemning the recent nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, on June 6.-EVAN SCHNIEDER / AP

One element uniting the Security Council resolution and the G-8 communique is the demand that the nuclear programmes on both sides of the South Asian divide be capped immediately. More ominously, the Security Council has urged both sides to start negotiations to resolve the problems that divide them, including Kashmir. And in order to create a climate for fruitful talks, it has called for the cessation of threatening troop movements, infiltrations and military incursions into each other's territory. In case the principal disputants are unable to establish an environment for dialogue, the G-8 has offered its intermediation through a "task force" that will examine the underlying causes and arbitrate on their merits.

The G-8 communique was issued in the context of an unseemly game of diplomatic evasion and manouevre between India and Pakistan. India offered to start discussions at the Foreign Secretary level in New Delhi on June 22. The framework proposed was the Dhaka proposal of January 15, 1998, which was India's effort to break the logjam that had arisen over the interpretation of an agenda agreed upon on June 23, 1997. Although eight issues were identified as the focus of negotiations, India and Pakistan did not agree on relative prioritisation. India has insisted that the first two items on the agenda - respectively, "peace and security, including confidence building measures" and "Jammu and Kashmir" - are just two among eight issues, meriting no special priority. Pakistan has been equally keen to move these two issues to a different basis of negotiation.

India proposed in Dhaka that the precise mechanisms of bilateral transactions could be worked out over time, since the immediate need was to commence the dialogue. That offer has withstood the change in government in New Delhi, although the nuclear tests of May have hardened attitudes.

Pakistan's response to India's latest offer of talks was a rather rude refusal. It proposed that the June 1997 agenda be pursued with the two items of special interest to it being accorded relatively higher priority. Alternatively, as a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Islamabad put it, the bilateral dialogue could be supplemented by a broader multilateral process, which would put into effect the "Geneva initiative" of the P-5. Fundamental to Pakistan's position is a tacit belief that international mediation is integral to a dialogue with India. This is an option that India is equally firm in rejecting.

Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, had meanwhile concluded meetings with French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Although both meetings were described as fruitful and cordial, there was little visible accrual of benefits to India. The G-8 and P-5 communiques have been unrelenting in their tone and unsparing in their demands. A further diplomatic initiative saw Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and a close confidant of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, calling on U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. The outcome was an agrement that India and the U.S. would continue their dialogue, though at a time to be determined and on an agenda that is yet to be spelt out.

The Indian offer to the P-5 remains essentially unchanged - adherence to some of the conditions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the transformation of the moratorium declared on nuclear testing into a de jure commitment, and participation in the negotiations in Geneva towards a fissile material cutoff treaty. To the insistence of the P-5 and G-8 that all sources of tension with Pakistan be dealt with, India has responded by reiterating that it stands committed to talks on the basis of the Dhaka proposals.

It is yet unclear that this bargaining position will win the country any concessions from either the Security Council or the Western alliance. Between successive reiterations of this stand in various Western capitals, the pressure on India only mounted. The G-8 communique, stronger in tone than any other collective rebuke, seems to suggest that the parallel track of diplomacy is yet to produce any tangible result.

India has responded to the G-8 with a stronger affirmation of the points made in relation to the Security Council resolution. "Coercive and intrusive prescriptions are not only ill-advised but also counter-productive," said the Ministry of External Affairs in a strongly worded statement. The Indian Government, the statement continued, would not accept any proposal that abridged its powers of sovereign decision making. And instead of "offering homilies", the G-8 would be well-advised to consider seriously the proposals that India had advanced, as a basis for meeting common concerns.

Jaswant Singh's meeting with officials of the U.S. State Department virtually coincided with a series of locutions by President Bill Clinton that could have far-reaching implications. In justifying his planned visit to China to a sceptical Congress, Clinton offered the plea that China has a serious role to play in calming the fresh eruption of animosities in South Asia. That he should have proferred this fresh rationale, quite distinct of the commercial benefits that the linkage with China brings the U.S., bears distinctly menacing overtones as far as India is concerned.

India has not officially chosen to respond to these remarks of Clinton's. They are, to an extent, firmly situated in domestic factional rivalries between the Democratic administration and Republican Congress. But in identifying the threat from China as a factor in its decision to adopt an overtly nuclear posture, the Vajpayee Government may well have contributed, in a perverse sense, to this new twist in the Clinton administration's perceptions.

U.S. interests in the Central Asian region remain as strong as ever. Its sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in concert with Pakistan's military establishment, has predictably ended in fiasco. Although central to the Pakistani vision of a South Asian Islamic homeland, Kashmir was for the U.S. a peripheral front in the great game involving Central Asia. The collapse of their interests in the killing fields of Afghanistan could well propel Kashmir to a more central position in American strategic calculations. And in having played into the hands of international mediators who are neither fair nor enlightened, the BJP-led Government in Delhi may well need to make accommodations of a fairly drastic order merely to retain a semblance of stability and order.

In plunging into a realm that remains largely unknown and uncharted, the BJP-led Government has shown little concern for domestic political opinion. Having led the country into a state of siege, the BJP, to all appearances, seems to imagine that it has the presumptive right to the loyalty of all parties. Anything less, to go by the tone of the debates in Parliament and other forums, would be akin to high treason. Political veterans who have done great honour to the institution of Parliament have been chided by ardent BJP jingoists for speaking on behalf of Pakistan; those who have pleaded for a moderation of the adventurist posture have been accused of being out of step with public sentiment; and anybody who has questioned the prudence of the new nuclear posture has suffered the mortification of having his loyalty to the country questioned. The crowning irony is that after fomenting a public mood of irrationality and chauvinist hyperbole, the BJP may well be compelled to resort to a bargain sale of all the time-tested principles of Indian foreign policy.

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