Foreign policy dilemmas


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IT’S a truism that domestic politics affects foreign policy. What happens in internal politics reflects in various ways how one deals with external matters. The reverse is somewhat less of a truism, namely, that foreign policy affects domestic politics. Truisms are obvious truths but no less true for all that. India’s foreign relations have affected domestic arrangements and choices and will continue to do so.

Conceptually, it is not hard to see that foreign policy choices affect domestic choices. In India’s case, for instance, external security challenges have affected budgetary priorities. In the past several budgets, defence allocations have risen significantly, leaving less, proportionately speaking, for expenditure on social welfare. Bad relations with our neighbours, particularly Pakistan and China, have been associated with interference in our borderland states (and further a field as well). Virtually all of the secessionist movements in the borderland areas have been helped along by our neighbours.

The external has affected the internal in other ways too. Thus, India’s relations with Pakistan have been a factor in Hindu-Muslim interactions. In addition, in general, external relations have at crucial junctures distracted attention from domestic imperatives, economic and political, to the detriment of those areas of policy.

Managing our external relations will be crucial for the success of internal policies in the years to come. What should New Delhi be doing in dealing with Pakistan, the United States, China and our smaller neighbours in South Asia?

Pakistan remains the greatest challenge to Indian foreign policy. We have over the past ten years tried almost every strategy to bring Pakistan round. Very broadly, we have threatened Pakistan (the Vajpayee government); we have tried to embrace it (the Deve Gowda/Gujral governments); and we have tried to more or less ignore it (the Narasimha Rao government). Since the 13 December terrorist attack on Parliament and then again after the Kaluchak killings, India has intensified its threats to Pakistan. Has this worked? Is there an alternative that would help the cause of domestic stability and economic development?

The government has represented its campaign of coercive diplomacy over the past six months as a success. What would constitute success? The government’s own markers keep changing. Sometimes we are told that the end of terrorism is the basic criterion of success. At other times we are told that a significant reduction in terrorism would constitute success. Success could also be counted in terms of holding a peaceful, free and fair election in Kashmir, without disruption by the militants. The Home Minister has often represented success in terms of his list of demands going back to December when he said that Pakistan must hand over the twenty militants that India has named, control the madrasas in Pakistan, take action against Islamic extremists, freeze and mop up the finances of the jehadis and stop terrorism in Kashmir.



If these indeed are the appropriate criteria, Indian policy cannot be reckoned a success. The end of terrorism is nowhere in sight. There has been no really telling decrease in terrorism since Musharraf’s commitment to the US to end the violence. The exercise of an inclusive, free and fair, and peaceful election in Kashmir has enjoyed mixed results, to say the least. Despite the more than expected turnout, the Hurriyat and other groups in Kashmir, including the so-called Third Front, rejected the idea of participating in the elections. And none of Lal Kishen Advani’s demands have been met (although Musharraf has taken some action on at least four of the five).

Why has the Vajpayee government’s coercive diplomacy not worked? Some would say that it did not go far enough or long enough, that it should have used force in some measure and taken the brinksmanship game at least a round or two further. Others would argue that the diplomatic part of the strategy was not carried through sufficiently. India should have moved to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty, stopped all trade, sent Pakistan’s remaining diplomats home and withdrawn its own residual staff in Pakistan, and so on. Both views are probably wrong. The basic reason they are wrong is that the premise underlying both viewpoints – that India could and therefore should ‘raise the costs’ to Pakistan – is untenable. Why?

It is untenable because Pakistan’s ability to bear costs is very high. We should remember that this is a country that at one time ran at least three cross-border campaigns of subversion simultaneously – in Afghanistan, in Kashmir, and in Punjab. At the same time, its domestic politics was in varying states of disarray, with ethnic conflict in Karachi, the rest of Sindh, Punjab, and parts of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Shias and Sunnis were killing each other, and civilian politicians and army generals were vying with each other for power and pelf. Its economy was in arguably the worst shape since the 1950s, and it had few friends in the international system (except for the old standbys, China and Saudi Arabia, and even Beijing was wary of its ‘all-weather friend’).



Ironically, thanks to the events of September 11 and the US war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan has shed the Afghan operation which was becoming a strategic liability. The Punjab operation ended in the middle 1990s, and so that is no longer on Islamabad’s strategic plate. Ethnic and religious conflicts have not gone away internally, but they are no worse than they were in the early 1990s.

The civilian-army problem has been at least temporarily resolved by the Musharraf takeover and the consolidation of military rule: the Pakistani government is more coherent than it has been since the Zia ul Haq days. The economy is in poor shape, but the international community’s aid package since September 11 has brightened the situation. The old standbys internationally have been joined by the new (old) standbys – the US and the rest of the West. Willy-nilly, the world has had to mend its relations with Pakistan.

Of course Pakistan has been read the riot act; but Pakistan is not a very squeamish power, and it is counting on the growing international involvement in South Asia playing to its advantage. Already, the international community’s patience with India’s strategy of ‘no-talks with Pakistan’ plus coercive diplomacy is wearing thin.



There is another reason for Pakistan’s sense of resilience during this crisis, namely, its lack of nervousness over India’s military mobilization. What got to Musharraf to some extent was the arm-twisting by the US and its allies (even this should not be exaggerated). What did not get to him was India’s military buildup on the LoC and international border. The Pakistanis know that anything short of a large-scale conventional war will not hurt them. They also know that even a large-scale attack is problematic for India and cannot be counted upon to succeed.

Pakistan is very strong conventionally, and in a short, sharp war, which is what virtually any conventional war against Pakistan must be, Pakistani forces can hold their own and then some. In fact, Musharraf would probably welcome a war. War would demonstrate that India is an irresponsible power (initiating hostilities when nuclear weapons are around and the fight on terrorism is still in progress). It would internationalize the situation in South Asia even more, up to and including a call by the international community for mediation on the issue of Kashmir. It would also boost Musharraf’s popularity within Pakistan and refurbish his image with the extremists and jehadis.



Like it or not, therefore, India’s best option is strategic patience and a willingness to come back to the negotiating table. We cannot keep one-third of our armed forces on alert in forward positions forever. We cannot ignore the need to engage Pakistan, however difficult that may be. We cannot turn our backs on international opinion which is still with us but that can be fickle. The Vajpayee government’s recent moves to pull back our naval flotilla, to name a new High Commissioner, and to allow Pakistani over-flights once again are an indication that the government has done some of its math correctly. It now needs to go the logical extra bit by agreeing to talks with Islamabad.

New Delhi insists that the numbers of terrorist incidents in Kashmir must come down before it can resume talks. I think we must admit that the government can cook up virtually any numbers it wants and that therefore the resumption of talks is a matter of convenience. Talks may not lead to a breakthrough on Kashmir, but they would help us avoid a situation where there is another big terrorist attack and the pressures to go to war against Pakistan become intolerable and lead us into a catastrophic policy.

The resumption of talks will allow the government to suggest that Musharraf may not be at fault each time there is a big terrorist incident and that there are larger things at stake than simply beating up the Pakistanis. Talks would also have helped us to get on better with what is the most important part of our agenda, namely, to hold free and fair elections in Kashmir. In pulling off a credible election, we have done a lot – a lot more than flashing our swords around from time to time without accomplishing much.

What about relations with the US? The government has pursued two lines of policy with Washington over the past year since September 11. The first consists of a longer-term strategic entente which it advertises as being above and beyond the ambit of India-Pakistan relations, as part of a larger security game in Asia if not further afield. The second consists of a shorter-term, more local, Pakistan-centered line of policy in which it plays brinksmanship with the US in order to get Washington to pressurize Pakistan. The threat of war with Pakistan, one that could involve nuclear weapons, is at the heart of the coercive diplomacy game that New Delhi is playing with its new-found US partner. Has the government’s US policy been a success?



The government has certainly begun to build a more mature relationship with the US. The constant comings and goings of senior politicians and officials, the defence deals, the intelligence sharing, and the military cooperation that have become a feature of the India-US relationship over the past year or so represent an advance over the rather thin (though admittedly growing) relationship that had existed before Bush came to office. At the second level, though, it is much more difficult to gauge success.

Clearly, the Americans have been pushed into saying some harsh things to Musharraf about his India policy. The question is, of course, to what effect? To the extent that, as we noted earlier, Pakistan has not reduced the level of terrorism in Kashmir or met India’s various demands, US pressures would appear to have been rather ineffective. Is this because of a lack of trying, or is it because dealing with Musharraf is so difficult?

It is probably a bit of both, although I think the latter is the more important factor. The Americans have undoubtedly warned Musharraf that the situation with India is explosive and that they don’t like his equivocations on terrorism. That said, we should not be surprised if there is a limit to their exertions. For fifty years now we have doggedly and often nastily insisted that Kashmir was no one’s business but ours and Pakistan’s. Now we want the international community to make Kashmir their business as well, at least up to a point.



It is completely useless to go around saying that what we are talking about is international scrutiny of Pakistan’s behaviour and its support of terrorism and what we are not talking about is outside involvement in settling the Kashmir dispute. The US, for one, sees scolding Musharraf as a form of involvement in the Kashmir dispute. The problem is that Washington and its allies are scared of even this degree of involvement in an issue that has confounded the international community for over half a century.

Worse, the Indian position on Kashmir is not one that the Americans and others can altogether credence; indeed, it is likely that they have more than a sneaking sympathy for Pakistan. Thus, whatever their official positions, most foreigners privately are closer to Musharraf’s view that Kashmir is the core issue, that accession to India was controversial, that the present phase of the Kashmir upsurge (since 1987) is primarily India’s doing, and that Kashmiris must have a say in a final settlement.

From the US’ point of view the bigger problem, though, is that it needs Pakistan and Musharraf and does not want to place the relationship at risk by leaning too heavily on both. Islamabad knows this all too well, and does a masterful job of portraying itself as the US’s most allied ally and also its worst nightmare. The possibility of Pakistan’s collapse and Musharraf’s disappearance from the Pakistani political scene outweigh all the bad things that Pakistan represents. The US is, therefore, caught in a real dilemma. Its ability to exert pressure is limited by the cleft stick that it is caught in. This, even more than US unwillingness to get involved in the Kashmir quagmire and its doubts about India’s Kashmir policy, constrains what Washington can achieve when it confronts Musharraf on India’s behalf.



In short, brinksmanship with the US over Pakistan’s support of terrorism can only take India so far. Indeed, by pushing too much, we could alienate the US. Washington’s earlier travel advisory has to be seen in this light. The ostensive reason for the advisory was fear of what might happen in South Asia and a concern for the safety of US citizens. Contrary to the nonsense in our press and the equal nonsense of some of our politicians, this is quite understandable.

We in India pulled out 1,00,000 of our citizens from the Gulf during the war of 1991 in one of the largest peacetime evacuations anywhere in the world, even though the vast majority of Indians would probably have gone unharmed; why should we deny that others have the right to be concerned about their own? Behind the advisory, though, was very likely quite another calculation as well, namely, that if the Indians could twist the US’s tail over Pakistan, the Americans could return the favour by frightening away their tourists and investors!

So what should India’s US policy be? There is not much to quarrel with on the first line of policy. A deeper engagement and partnership with the US was overdue and should continue. It is the second line that is problematic and must be modified. India simply cannot expect the US to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. The government must keep the US informed about Pakistan’s continuing involvement in terrorism. We should also continue to urge Washington to do whatever it can to discipline Musharraf. We cannot, however, continue to blackmail the Americans. Crying wolf is bad policy.

Briefly, what about China policy and the rest of our South Asia policy? Here there is good news and bad news. The good news is the China policy. After all the posturing on China, especially in 1998, the government’s approach to Beijing has been sensible enough and for the most part is consistent with earlier, pre-1998 policy.



There are four parts to China policy: the JWG (Joint Working Group) which focuses on the border and on confidence building; the security dialogue which goes further than the JWG (and has recently included terrorism); the increasing frequency of summit level meetings (at the Presidential, Prime Minister’s, and Foreign Minister’s level); and trade (which has gone past the three billion dollar mark, from a paltry $200 million only ten years ago). All four elements of the policy are in good shape. In addition, China has played a reasonable role in India-Pakistan relations, making it clear that it does not support the destabilization of the Line of Control. This, too, is good news for India.

The bad news is in respect of policy towards our smaller neighbours. The situation in Nepal remains shaky after the assassination of the royal family and the Maoist upsurge. India and Nepal are yet to bring to a conclusion discussions on the 1950 treaty. Trade, transit and riverine issues remain on the agenda. In Bangladesh, the Begum Zia government has not been terribly friendly. Its handling of Hindu-Muslim relations has been provocative, to say the least. In addition, discussions on territorial enclaves, trade, transit, energy, riverine and migration issues have made little headway.



In Sri Lanka, the coming out of Prabhakaran as part of the Norwegian-brokered peace process is problematic for India. The minute Prabhakaran is rehabilitated, New Delhi will ask for his extradition to face murder charges in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This will complicate the peace process and relations with Colombo. The NDA government’s preoccupation with Pakistan, the US, China, and East and Central Asia in the past four years has caused it to ignore the rest of South Asia. We are now in danger of paying for that neglect. Relations with our smaller neighbours may go back to the rather wretched old days of the 1980s, with fear and suspicion on both sides. The problem is that relations with these countries are vital for our own domestic stability and wellbeing.

In conclusion: New Delhi needs to reopen a dialogue with Pakistan. It must stop playing brinksmanship and crying wolf with the US. It should keep the larger strategic engagement with the US and the detente with China going. Both powers should be used, in a sensible and nuanced way, against Pakistan. Finally, the government must pay a good deal more attention to our smaller neighbours and to the changes in motion there that, in particular, could affect those parts of India which are contiguous to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.