THE overt nuclearization of the subcontinent since May 1998 has transformed the Indo-Pakistani relationship in fundamental ways. It has effectively ruled out the prospect of deliberate resort to full-scale war because of the risk of escalation to the nuclear level. That said, as the Kargil conflict demonstrated, limited incursions in peripheral areas remains a distinct possibility.
Such calibrated breaches of existing boundaries can be engaged in without fear of provoking a larger conflict because no vital assets of the adversary would be threatened. Additionally, such ‘limited probes’, to borrow the language of the noted American strategic analyst, Alexander George, can be effectively utilized to clarify the defender’s commitments and resolve. In 1999, apart from re-focusing international attention on the Kashmir problem, Pakistani decision-makers also sought to test India’s military preparedness and political resolve by undertaking a limited, reversible probe.
Unfortunately, all of Pakistan’s key calculations went awry. Once the Indian military stumbled upon the incursions and assessed their scope, they were granted the requisite political dispensation to attack and dislodge the intruders. Simultaneously, unlike in the past, key states in the global community, and most significantly the United States, adopted the unequivocal position that the sanctity of the Line of Control had to be respected and indeed restored. President Clinton and his National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, delivered this message with considerable force when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Washington, D.C. on 4 July 1999 in an attempt to seek American mediation to end the crisis.
The American willingness during this crisis to adopt an unwavering position, favourable to India, opened the pathway to a new, more cordial Indo-U.S. relationship. It received a further boost with the election of President George W. Bush. Unlike the Clinton administration, which had hamstrung relations with India over its differences on the nonproliferation question, the Bush administration adopted a more pragmatic approach to the same subject. It chose to significantly broaden the scope of Indo-U.S. ties despite India’s unyielding position on the nuclear question. This shift also made it possible for New Delhi to warmly respond to various American strategic initiatives, including an end to the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11 the American decision to seek Pakistan’s assistance to prosecute a war against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban could have brought to a close this cordial trend in Indo-U.S. relations. Adroit diplomacy on the part of both capitals prevented such an infelicitous outcome. India, while understandably miffed with the U.S. decision to publicly court and lionize General Musharraf, nevertheless avoided needless pique with the United States. Instead, India’s foreign policy establishment quite dexterously emphasized its own trials and tribulations with terror and sought to link them to America’s global concerns. This endeavour, of course, gathered considerably greater force and significance in the wake of the terrorist attack on India’s Parliament on 14 December 2001.
In the aftermath of that attack Indian foreign and security policy elites adopted a two-pronged strategy. The first element of this strategy involved bringing substantial military and diplomatic pressure to bear on Pakistan. The steps that India undertook are well known and do not necessitate recapitulation. The second prong in the strategy was to focus relentless international diplomatic pressure on Pakistan.
Despite this concerted, two-pronged approach, General Musharraf and his acolytes appeared unwilling to knuckle under. The nefarious activities of the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist groups in Kashmir proceeded apace without ebb. The United States, while sympathetic to India’s plight, nevertheless proved unwilling to press the Pakistani military dictatorship to desist from its support to the Kashmiri militants. The American reluctance to forthrightly upbraid Musharraf stemmed in large measure from the necessity to elicit his cooperation in prosecuting the war against the remnants of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Indian tolerance of Musharraf’s dissembling and American latitude toward his regime drew to a close with the terrorist attack on the Indian military base at Kaluchak on 14 May of this year.
In the wake of this especially vicious attack, Indian decision-makers significantly ratcheted up their public rhetoric and bolstered the existing military deployments along the India-Pakistan border. To much of the world it appeared that India was now on the verge of embarking upon a military coup de main against its nettlesome and recalcitrant adversary. Soon there-after, many western commentators and diplomats alike publicly expressed the fear that war, and very possibly nuclear war, was all but imminent in the region. These misgivings quickly gathered considerable steam and contributed to a flurry of diplomatic activity designed to defuse the seemingly inexorable spiral of hostility.
By late June the crisis had been defused. The U.S. played a critical role in bringing the crisis to a close. It successfully managed to induce General Musharraf to end support to the insurgents. By the same token, it convinced India to undertake a process of military demobilization.
Despite a peaceful end to this crisis the underlying problems in Indo-Pakistani relations remain. The Pakistani politico-military establishment will not easily abandon the Kashmir question. More to the point, they will also seek to militarily support the insurgents despite solemn pledges to the contrary. Pakistan’s reasons for supporting the insurgents militarily are twofold. Many key members of the Pakistani establishment genuinely believe that unless they sustain the military pressure India will not address the grievances of the Kashmiris. At another level, they wish to continue this ‘war of a thousand cuts’ to bleed India militarily.
Apart from an utterly ideologically-charged segment of this establishment, most realize that the prospect of wresting Kashmir from India through the use of force is all but illusory. Nevertheless, they are willing to support the insurgents to inflict pain on India. This desire to inflict costs on India stems from Pakistan’s utter and complete military humiliation at Indian hands in 1971.
Tragically, as long as Pakistan sustains its military pressure it will be all but impossible for India to restore any meaningful degree of political and societal normalcy to Kashmir. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s myopic policies are not the only stumbling block to the return of some semblance of peace in Kashmir. Complicating this quest for a restoration of both order and the rule of law in Kashmir are political cleavages in New Delhi. These schisms deal with the pursuit of appropriate strategies in Kashmir.
Certain hardline elements within the permanent bureaucracy, not to mention the political establishment, still persist in seeing Kashmir through the parochial prism of law and order. These segments of the polity display a singular and stunning unwillingness to arrive at the obvious realization that a significant portion of the Valley remains deeply disaffected from India. Consequently, they fail to countenance the critical necessity of engaging a wide spectrum of Kashmiri political opinion as the October elections approach. Worse still, they appear intent on undermining the efforts of those in government, most notably in the Prime Minister’s Office, who have sought to pursue a more flexible, imaginative and innovative set of policy initiatives.
There are, of course, no tailor-made solutions to the vexed question of Kashmir. Nevertheless, a free, fair and widely representative election could serve as a credible and viable basis for draining the reservoir of discontent that exists in the Valley. Holding such an election will require both Pakistani restraint and adequate preparations on India’s part. Given the Pakistani recalcitrance on the question of infiltration and the propensity of some in the Indian political establishment to sandbag even a first step toward the redressal of genuine grievances, how can any forward movement take place? This is where the nascent American role in South Asia becomes crucial.
Without significant, sustained and unwavering pressure on Pakistan, General Musharraf or one of his successors will not abandon their quixotic quest in Kashmir. Simultaneously, only the United States has the requisite global and regional standing to reassure the Pakistanis that their time-honoured effort to get India to grant the Muslims of Kashmir a fair dispensation has not been in vain.
Since 1999, the United States’ role in reducing tensions in the region has been mostly salutary. Even though many in South Block and in India’s attentive public continue to oppose an American role, the U.S. is already a key player in South Asia. Even after it has met its goal of eviscerating the Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region, the U.S. will remain interested in the affairs of the region.
During the Cold War India sought to limit and balance the American presence and influence in the region by courting the Soviet Union. That option, however, is now no longer available. A debilitated Russia, the principal successor state of the Soviet Union, is licking its own wounds, and is in no position and is fundamentally disinclined to play any such role. On its own, India simply lacks the resources to limit American reach in South Asia. Consequently, it now makes sense for India to actively court the United States.
In this endeavour, India possesses many long-term assets that Pakistan does not. To begin with, its economy is vastly larger, diverse and growing. If the Indian political leadership can shed its parochial horizons and allow economic liberalization to flourish, India can emerge as one of the world’s front-rank economies in the decades ahead. Willy-nilly, India has also become a military power to be reckoned with. As its economy grows, it will be able to devote greater resources to defence. Consequently, its expanding military might will make it one of the major military forces in Asia in the years ahead.
Finally, the Indian political system, with all its flaws, is nevertheless a working democracy. All these three factors make India a desirable working partner to the United States because of the American interest in India’s markets, its misgivings about a resurgent and possibly revanchist China and its preference for democratic regimes, wherever sustainable. More specifically, India can be useful to the United States in such areas as global peacekeeping, in anti-terrorism efforts and in ensuring the freedom of sea lanes in the Persian Gulf and in Southeast Asia.
Despite these attractive features of the Indian polity, certain trends that currently exist could derail the convergence of Indo-American interests and cooperation. First, the pragmatic foreign and security policies of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance could unravel. The new foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, has already expressed his unhappiness with what he perceives to be an American unwillingness to coerce General Musharraf to end support for transnational terror. The new Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, in recent days has also expressed similar sentiments.
These remarks may not presage a significant shift in the pragmatism and bonhomie that had come to characterize Indo-U.S. relations in the last few years. However, they do suggest that certain key Indian decision makers are frustrated with the seeming inability (or worse still, unwillingness) of the United States to deal with Pakistan with a firm and consistent hand. Second, despite Jaswant Singh’s new assignment as finance minister, the process of economic liberalization may remain stalled.
The tough decisions involving labour law, continuing privatization and a reduction in both domestic and external tariffs, to suggest a few contentious decisions that lie ahead, may not materialize and thereby thwart economic growth. The inability to generate greater rates of growth will also hobble India’s much needed ability to improve its poor infrastructure and release vital resources for education, health and other public works. Such an outcome would have both the short and long-term effect of discouraging foreign and especially American investment in crucial sectors of the Indian economy.
Third, the recrudescence of communal violence in India, especially along the lines that the country has recently witnessed in Gujarat, and the seeming obliviousness of the Central government to the plight of the principal victims, the Muslim community, could also undermine much of the goodwill that has been so carefully cultivated and tended in the past few years. Merely hiding behind the skirts of ‘national sovereignty’ will no longer cloak India from justifiable criticism of its increasingly poor record in upholding the values of a secular, civic and plural polity. Finally, continuing tensions in Indo-Pakistani relations may well enable the now marginalized nonproliferation zealots in Washington, D.C. to once again come to the fore. Such a movement within Washington, D.C. would signal very different policies toward India and mean a return to the bitter contentions of the past decade.
None of these infelicitous scenarios, however, is inevitable. Dexterous actions on the part of the regime at home and in the world can ensure that India’s long-term security interests in the region and its growing diplomatic partnership with the United States are not at risk. Some critical choices lie before India’s political and ruling elites. Will they have the sagacity, courage and imagination to devise strategies that address India’s own shortcomings in Kashmir? Will they continue to enlarge the realm of diplomatic, military and economic co-operation with the United States? And will they have the resolve to deal with Pakistani recalcitrance without resort to either alarmist or hyperbolic rhetoric? The manner in which they respond to these myriad challenges will determine the state of India’s national security in the months and years ahead.