An elusive peace with Pakistan

MALINI PARTHASARATHY

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FIVE months ago, when all the hopes and prayers of the people of the subcontinent had come to rest on the promise of peace held out by the prospect of a summit meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan in Agra, India’s Foreign Ministry spokes-person had enthusiastically summed up the intent that underlay the invitation to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to start the much yearned-for dialogue as: ‘the commencement of a journey and the beginning of a process.’ Yet those hopes and dreams foundered on the inability of both India and Pakistan to make a new beginning at Agra with neither establishment willing to let go of its stubbornly held formulations. This translated into bitter disappointment that was then sharply exacerbated by the subsequent events that followed the collapse of the Agra talks.

But perhaps, this present moment represents the most testing and profoundly challenging time for diplomacy between India and Pakistan in the wake of the assault on Parliament on 13 December mounted by the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil. While democratic India is understandably outraged by this brazen provocation and expects Pakistan, which has offered full support to the US campaign against terrorism, to crack down on these groups, there is a real danger of an escalation of tensions as a result of the attitudes of Islamabad and New Delhi.

The manner in which the two governments have responded to this grave situation itself exemplifies the deep-seated nature of the crisis in relations between India and Pakistan. On the one hand, before the full details were even unraveled, the Vajpayee administration rushed to declare Pakistan’s complicity and wrongly pronounced the Lashkar-e-Taiba as the main attacker when it turned out subsequently that it was the Jaish which had been the primary offender, allowing Islamabad to go on the offensive against what it called ‘India’s false propaganda’. The chauvinist Hindu majoritarian rhetoric that was employed by India’s Home Minister, L.K. Advani and others did not help matters. In fact India’s attempts to build a persuasive case to the world community against Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism appeared to evoke only lukewarm international resonance.

Meanwhile the military regime in Islamabad, buoyed by its new strategic value to Washington, responded with extraordinarily insensitive statements that could not but hurt the latent goodwill that exists in democratic India. Suggestions that Indian intelligence agencies had engineered the assault on India’s Parliament were seen as grossly unmindful of the pain that India and Indians were experiencing in the light of the 13 December attack. It is painfully clear that as each day dies, the chasm between India and Pakistan is widening, to the detriment of its people.

What are the prospects for improvement of relations between two countries, whose leaderships have high political stakes in peddling perceptions of each other as adversarial and inimical? What also is the scope for disentangling ties between India and Pakistan from the overall complex pattern of pressures being thrust on this region by the United States’ new war on terrorism in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on America? It is evident that impinging upon the scope and prospects for the improvement of the bilateral relationship are a host of new factors.

One of these is the insertion of the United States as a strategically relevant presence in the South Asian region. It is painfully clear that the United States’ military campaign in Afghanistan has led to the emphatic presence of the US as a player in this region and the strategic reality that its own political interests will now be a specific factor in the regional dynamics in a way that they were not before. The Indian government’s own strategic calculations have been knocked asunder by the impact of the post-11 September sequence of events, including America’s cooption of Pakistan’s military regime as a major partner in its military campaign to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban regime and to bring the suspected perpetrators of the brutal 11 September attacks, Osama bin Laden and his colleagues to justice.

 

 

Given that the first part of the American military project has proceeded smoothly, from the American point of view, as originally envisioned, thanks in large measure to the collaboration of the Musharraf regime which unhesitatingly provided logistical support to the operations and unflinchingly distanced itself from the Taliban, it is now more than likely that the United States will not forget its ‘debt’ to Pakistan. It is abundantly clear that Islamabad has successfully reinstated itself in Washington’s good books.

Thus, in a sense, Pakistan’s General Musharraf has paid India back in its own strategic coin, as it were, by playing the very same game that India has in relation to the United States, ever since the Clinton administration implicitly threw its weight behind India’s position after it pressured Pakistan to withdraw its troops and disperse the mujahadeen fighters from the Line of Control after the Kargil standoff in the summer of 1999. If the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee had earlier appeared to signal a willingness to depart from the pattern of past acrimony when he took a bus to Lahore and signed a historic declaration together with the then Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif which promised a new and durable peace process between the two countries, there was an abrupt reversal of policy course by the Vajpayee regime after the Kargil flare-up.

 

 

The military coup in October 1999 that brought upfront to power New Delhi’s imagined nemesis, the man it had dubbed the ‘architect of Kargil’, General Musharraf, and then the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Taliban territory, the infamous Kandahar, in December that year, seen to have clear backing from the Pakistani intelligence agency (the ISI), were events that allowed India to publicly repudiate the idea of restarting the peace process with Pakistan.

From that point onwards until the events of 11 September which brought Pakistan sharply back to the centrestage in the American strategic reckoning, the Vajpayee administration pursued a strategic and diplomatic course in relation to Pakistan and the United States that was deeply flawed by rank opportunism and extreme shortsightedness. It was an approach that banked far too heavily on the calculation derived from the euphoria of the Clinton visit to the subcontinent in March 2000, that Washington had lost its use for Islamabad and was now set on a course of discovering India’s richer potential for strategic collaboration.

It was a heady few days for the BJP-led regime when President Clinton had indicated his administration’s eagerness to inaugurate a new chapter in America’s relations with India. The high point was the vision statement signed by both countries during the Clinton visit which unveiled a dialogue architecture envisaging a stream of officials of both countries in constant touch even as there were strong hints of greater strategic cooperation between the United States and India in the strategic dialogue that was conceptualized and of which ten rounds were held between the External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh and the US Deputy Secretary of State then, Strobe Talbott. The keenness that Clinton and his entourage showed in intensifying cooperation with India was coupled with a strong rebuff to the military regime in Pakistan during that same visit to the subcontinent.

 

 

In a flying visit to Pakistan consisting of a few hours, contrasting vividly with his five-day visit to India, the most remarkable moment of Clinton’s stopover was his wagging his finger remonstratingly on Pakistan television, registering his strong disapproval of the military regime in Islamabad and urging a speedy return to democracy. This stinging rebuke to Pakistan’s regime was music to the BJP leadership’s ears. The unfortunate consequence of this new entente was the delusions of grandeur on the part of the Vajpayee administration which followed. These rash conclusions that drew heavily from the presumption of the new American strategic interest in enhanced cooperation with India, began to reflect in the Indian establishment’s diplomatic responses, leading to some serious miscalculations by New Delhi.

When Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Washington during the autumn of the Clinton administration in September 2000, the Indian diplomatic pitch tirelessly spearheaded by the prime minister and echoed by his ministerial delegation was entirely focused on a castigation of Pakistan, relentlessly highlighting its ‘sponsorship of terrorism’. In what made a distinguished audience of academics and diplomats wince with embarrassment, Vajpayee launched into a virtual tirade against Pakistan during what was meant to be a dignified summation of India’s worldview at an Asia Society dinner, traditionally an occasion for statesmanly musings.

 

 

The same theme was taken to Capitol Hill, where the assembled Congressmen and Senators heard Vajpayee reiterate the same acrimonious themes of the dangers lurking in India’s neighbourhood, namely, the threat of state-sponsored terrorism being promoted by undemocratic regimes. American official sources indicated that the Vajpayee pitch had not really gone down well in Washington which was uncomfortable with the confrontationist tenor of the prime ministerial rhetoric. Analysts and long-term well-wishers of India looking to place India-US relations on a more secure footing and in a broader context were also disappointed that instead of launching into a creative and multifaceted exploration of the rich potential of India-US cooperation, the sole and obsessive focus of the Indian diplomatic approach to relations with America seemed to be to score points against Pakistan and pointedly stress to bemused Americans how they were better off engaging ‘democratic’ India rather than ‘jehad-promoting dictatorships’ like Pakistan.

The constant and dreary repetitious peddling of India’s democratic credentials in pointed contrast to Pakistan’s non-democratic structure, which might have worked well as a tactic in the short-term, given the American, particularly Democratic Party discomfiture with non-democratic regimes, has however not served as an effective argument in the longer term, especially after 11 September, when ‘non-democratic’ Pakistan became of much more palpable use to the US seeking to mount a major offensive in Afghanistan.

It is important to note that the stakes vested in the confrontationist approach to Pakistan, reflected both in the Vajpayee regime’s refusal to engage Islamabad ‘as long as cross-border terrorism continues’ and its determined international campaign against Pakistan, were not merely diplomatic and strategic. There were strong partisan political stakes vested in the portrayal of Pakistan as a sinister jehad-sponsoring neighbour.

 

 

Unlike previous governments, whether the Congress or the United Front regimes, which being essentially secular and centrist formations had no domestic stake in the demonisation of Pakistan, the Hindu nationalist BJP, anchored as it is to the visceral antipathies against Muslims and Islam, as much so as its cousins – the VHP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal – has every political reason to construct a negative image of Pakistan and its establishment. It might be that Vajpayee’s own personal political inclination ‘to go down in history’ would have propelled him to make the dramatic gesture of going to Lahore and likewise prompted him to call General Musharraf for talks in the picturesque setting of Agra, with the Taj Mahal as a backdrop. But it must be recognized that for the most part, Vajpayee has chosen not to tilt at the Sangh Parivar windmills and has in fact gone out of his way to assert his Hindutva moorings.

Thus there has been very little practical difference in the attitudes of Vajpayee and Advani in regard to relations with Pakistan. The question does remain that whether or not better diplomatic sense prevails in respect of the strategic decision to treat relations with Pakistan as a zero-sum game, will the political stakes that the Hindu nationalists have so heavily vested in the demonisation of Pakistan allow for a normalization of the relationship in a manner that might otherwise be acceptable to centrist secular regimes such as the Congress or the United Front?

 

 

Conventional wisdom among Delhi’s political pundits has it that right-wing dispensations are better placed to strike deals and hence a BJP administration in India and a military regime in Pakistan are said to be the ideal interlocutors for a process to bring a lasting peace between the two countries. But this is fallacious and self-serving logic. The real test of the ability of any interlocutor or negotiator to be able to narrow the gap between negotiating positions would depend on his or her ability to overcome the circumstances that forbid such a bridging of a gap.

In the cases of both the BJP in Delhi and the military regime in Islamabad, the political stakes that either has in demonizing the other appear at this moment to be enormous. For Vajpayee and the BJP, the international campaign against terrorism with its main targets being Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, has come in handy to subtly reinforce partisan messages in the domestic context. For instance, it has become easier for Hindu nationalists to sell the picture of a rampant Islamic terrorism blazing away in Kashmir, exploding in small pockets all over India, with its proxies to be found all too easily in the Muslim community.

This sinister portrayal of Islamic terror has been used cynically as an instrument of mobilization of sectarian Hindu sentiment to target innocent Muslim citizens and set in motion Hindutva’s most destructive tactic of communal polarization. By suggesting that Pakistan’s ISI is operating in every nook and corner of India, recruiting Indian Muslims as its operatives, the BJP-led government is manipulating the susceptibilities of the majority community and making the minorities dangerously vulnerable to witch hunts and persecution as never before in India’s several decades of secular coexistence.

 

 

Meanwhile the relatively limited political accountability of a military regime renders it less necessary for Islamabad’s new leadership, the Musharraf regime, to overcome the traditional Pakistani bureaucratic distrust of India’s negotiating intent. The political stakes that a military regime would have in continuing to portray New Delhi as an intransigent and hegemonistic neighbour who cannot be trusted, are obvious. As long as the people of Pakistan retain the belief that India represents a credible threat to their national security, their aspirations for democratic and popularly mandated governance would remain latent and they would have much less quarrel with the concept of the military being in power.

It would seem therefore that at this particular historical moment, the establishments in New Delhi and Islamabad have heavy domestic and personal stakes in sustaining a confrontational approach between both countries. The fact that talks broke down in Agra when reportedly nine out of ten clauses in a draft agreement had been agreed upon was a reflection of the high degree of mutual mistrust. The same night after both Vajpayee and Musharraf had sat down to talks in Agra, the mutual mistrust was out in the open with the Pakistani delegation expressing anger at premature announcements of success from the Indian side and the Indian delegation likewise indicating exasperation at the stubbornness of Pakistani negotiators. It was evident that it would be unrealistic in such an inflamed context to expect a breakthrough of any kind.

Yet, the post-11 September phase has clearly shown up India’s current diplomatic stance in a poor light, especially as it has so visibly failed to take into account the dramatic change in the international perception of Musharraf’s Pakistan. It could well be that the visceral Hindu nationalist prejudices that are latent in the BJP’s attitude to Pakistan are so deep-rooted that even though sustaining a confrontationist stance in relation to Pakistan in the current international climate risks losing India considerable goodwill, the Vajpayee administration has refused to budge from its present strategic attitude.

 

 

If Vajpayee and his colleagues had better tactical and strategic judgment, they could have adopted a wiser and more pragmatic approach that welcomed Pakistan’s decision to join the international fight against terror. Thereby they could have utilized much more effectively the political space that was dramatically opening up as a result of the changed international climate to gently nudge Musharraf down the road to taking on and overcoming jehadi extremism. That would have actually helped to rid the subcontinent, particularly the Kashmir region, of the formidable threat of terrorism and effectively banish several unwelcome shadows that have loomed menacingly over the negotiating process between India and Pakistan.

But presumably for domestic political reasons, especially the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Vajpayee administration has in fact stepped up the political pressure on Pakistan and sharpened the tenor of its international campaign against Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism in the Valley, much to the annoyance of the United States and its allies who are now more concerned with keeping Pakistan on their side in the hunt for bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

 

 

Within days of the 11 September attacks, Vajpayee and the Home Minister, L.K. Advani were quick to link Pakistan to the terror campaign that had been unleashed on America and which had brought an anguished international community to the acknowledgment that the principal challenge facing the globe was terrorism. The Vajpayee administration immediately pointed to the nexus between Pakistan and the Taliban. On 15 September, Advani asserted that Pakistan and the Taliban had been working ‘in tandem in abetting terrorism’ and said that the US should not ‘overlook this fact’ when formulating any strategy on curbing terrorism. He also pointedly underlined that Osama bin Laden was ‘a hero’ among Islamic terrorists and among those extremists active in the Kashmir Valley.

Advani did not let up in his strong hints to the international community that Pakistan ought to be seen as a terrorist state. After the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, he demanded that Pakistan must hand over to India the JeM leaders if it wanted to prove its seriousness in fighting terrorism. ‘Pakistan is a terrorist country,’ declared India’s Home Minister.

Likewise, Vajpayee, writing to the American President, George Bush after the 1 October attack by the JeM in Srinagar on the Legislative Assembly said, ‘Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India.’ The prime minister reiterated his view at a meeting in Lucknow, three weeks later that there was no point in talking to Pakistan as long as the cross-border terrorism continued. Sustaining the pressure on the international community to keep Pakistan at arm’s length, the Vajpayee regime took every opportunity whenever a western leader or official came calling in New Delhi to emphatically make the point that Pakistan could not be trusted in the fight against terror as it was a major sponsor of terrorism. For instance, Vajpayee told Britain’s Tony Blair that ‘we should not let countries pursue their own terrorist agendas under cover of this action.’

 

 

The sad point was that India’s diplomatic campaign against Pakistan was fast losing credibility especially because Pakistan’s Musharraf played a shrewd tactical game to project himself and his country as a responsible and sincere player in the new game. In contrast to New Delhi’s inept attempts to retain relevance in the changed international context, Musharraf acted swiftly when the United States demanded that he make a strategic choice either to be with Washington’s new anti-terror campaign or with the terrorists.

Not only did Musharraf secure the endorsement of his key military colleagues for providing logistical assistance to the American military campaign, he also played his domestic cards well. He sacked the ISI chief who was known to be close to the Taliban leadership, shuffled crucial military corps commanders to ensure that those loyal to his authority were at the top and, more importantly, acted fast to curb the dissent against his extending support to the United States by placing under arrest potential recalcitrants such as the Harkat ul Mujahadeen chief and other Islamic radicals. He has also made clear his intention to regulate the functioning of the madrasas, viewed as breeding grounds for Islamic extremism.

 

 

In short, Musharraf has got the upper hand over the jehadi extremists, thus boosting the psychological climate in Pakistan at a very testing time in its history. Interestingly, Musharraf has made no secret of the fact that he was quick to join the United States in its anti-terror campaign, for which he offered Pakistan’s ‘unstinted cooperation’, because he wanted to preempt India’s efforts to woo America. He has said repeatedly that he found it to be in Pakistan’s strategic interest, especially as regards the nuclear weapons issue and the ‘Kashmir cause’, to extend support to the international coalition against terrorism.

It is evident that as the first phase of the military campaign draws to a close, Pakistan has been strengthened by its decision to offer logistical assistance to the US which has made clear that it will not forget Islamabad’s gesture that has paved the way for the success of its military operation. India on the other hand, appears to have had its credibility and moral authority greatly diminished by the perceived failure to set aside its differences with Pakistan at a time that the international community regards as a deeply testing moment. Musharraf does represent the last frontier against jehadi extremism and an enlightened approach in India would have recognized that the dynamics of the bilateral context were bound to change radically as a result of his strategic decision to join the fight against terrorism.

Whether Pakistan’s military regime would have welcomed it or not, the battle against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban would have undeniably cleared the terrorist swamps operating in the region and greatly weakened their proxies fighting in the Kashmir Valley, giving India an upper hand in its struggle against militant extremism in Kashmir. The Vajpayee administration has now lost a valuable opportunity to ‘go down in history’ as having brought peace between India and Pakistan by refusing to acknowledge that considerable political space has opened up for both New Delhi and Islamabad to reformulate their strategies towards each other as a result of the new international campaign against terror.

 

 

The scope for negotiating a peace process has widened as a result of the new insistence by the international community that terrorism and terrorists can find no shelter. Musharraf can no longer seek to buttress his negotiating stance on Kashmir by using masked terrorists to frighten India into compliance with his demands. Armed with this confidence, the Indian establishment should logically have adopted a creative approach to restarting the dialogue with Pakistan.

If indeed, Vajpayee and his colleagues remain reluctant to engage Pakistan and restart the peace process, it would seem that factors other than strategic or diplomatic considerations are standing in the way. In this case, it is more than likely that the partisan project of communal polarization, which is at the core of the BJP’s platform, requires a picture of Pakistan as an estranged and menacing neighbour. Until relations between India and Pakistan are freed from the subliminal political agendas of the leaderships in both countries, it does seem that the scope for improvement of the bilateral relationship will remain limited.

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