When the politically pestilential Indo-US nuclear deal is not invading his thoughts, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, must be reflecting on a foreign-policy hara-kiri he very narrowly avoided. This was a fatally flawed settlement with Pakistan that some of his aides had championed during the United Progressive Alliance government’s first two years in office. Such reflection becomes imperative this week in the light of an effort led by the United States of America, across many time zones, to anoint yet another farce that appears certain to be enacted in Pakistan in the coming weeks in the name of democracy. At the time of writing, the proposed power-sharing deal between Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf has hit a roadblock, but Bhutto has announced, nevertheless, that she will soon return to Pakistan. Her rival, Nawaz Sharif, is also set to return home from seven years in exile next week. All this is ominous for India, which must be prepared for several eventualities. It should be a matter of concern for New Delhi that Musharraf has already been weakened to the point where he no longer has the authority or the will to stand by the promises he made not to allow anti-Indian terrorist activity to be carried out from areas under Pakistan’s control — a euphemism that included Pakistan-occupied parts of Kashmir.
It has always been a matter of dispute and debate within India’s intelligence agencies whether Musharraf was sincere in these assurances or whether his control over the army’s subversive Inter-Services Intelligence was strong enough to prevent rogue elements in the organization from continuing to plan and execute acts of terror across the border with India. That debate has now lost its relevance. With his political survival at stake, it is inevitable that honouring his commitments to New Delhi or even trying to improve relations with India is no longer anywhere near the top of Musharraf’s list of priorities. Therefore, New Delhi must prepare for an increase in cross-border terrorism as instability grows in Islamabad.
The presumption behind the US-led effort to save Musharraf and give him another lease of political life is that moderate elements in Pakistan will flock towards a power-sharing coalition between the General and Bhutto. On the face of it, this should augur well for India since Musharraf had committed to end cross-border terrorism and Bhutto has much to thank India for during her latest exile. But in politics, strange bedfellows such as the General and the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party can produce equally strange results. Even if the two cohabit in a ‘moderate’ government, there will be very little trust between them. From the moment they assume power, Musharraf and Bhutto will be trying to undermine each other.
Bhutto is unlikely or unable to challenge Washington’s interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and its scant respect for that country’s sovereignty, pride or territorial integrity. At the same time, she cannot be unaware that the US is the real issue in Pakistan and that in the short to medium run, the prospects are bleak for any politician who is seen as Washington’s collaborator. Will she then be able to resist the temptation to make up for her loss of popular appeal — because of her need to be one of George W. Bush’s newest poodles — by once again resuming her jihadi antics against India over Kashmir. The world saw a lot of it during her prime ministership twice. In office and under constant pressure from Musharraf and the army, Bhutto may seek to regain her legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Pakistan by going back to the days when successive rulers in Islamabad tried to tear away Kashmir from India through a low-intensity war.
India should not forget that her father converted Pakistan’s defeat into victory in Shimla in 1972 — in her presence at an impressionable age — by making all sorts of promises, including one to settle the Kashmir dispute, went back to Islamabad and slowly tore up each of those promises, making it easy for General Zia-ul-Haq to start his long, covert campaign to bleed India in Punjab and prepare for similar subversion in Kashmir that came about after his death.
Besides, if the Musharraf-Benazir duo is ensconced in office, the religious parties, which are now on Musharraf’s side, will have no option but to come out in open opposition to him. They will no longer be bound by anything Musharraf may have promised India, and will quickly revert to organizing the ‘libera-tion’ of Kashmir along familiar lines.
What would Nawaz Sharif do under these circumstances if he does, indeed, carry out his resolve to return to Pakistan next week' There are many ‘ifs’ to this aspect of Pakistani politics. Pakistan’s judiciary, now on an assertive course under its reinstated chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, may not silently put up with attempts to silence Sharif — or his brother, Shahbaz — after the Supreme Court ruled in Sharif’s favour last month. There is speculation in Pakistan that Sharif may seek anticipatory bail before he flies back into Lahore, where he is still very much a hero.
The Sharif brothers are astute enough to realize that this is their chance to avenge Musharraf’s coup d’etat of October 1999, which ended their dream run on Pakistan’s political scene. They are also banking on the very real possibility that Bhutto may have seriously hurt her long-term interests by the desperate effort to claw her way back into power through an opportunistic alliance with Musharraf.
Historically, Pakistan’s army has retreated to the barracks in the face of any serious or sustained popular movement for democracy or national revival. If Sharif can organize and sustain a popular uprising against Musharraf, then Bhutto will find, to her discomfort, that she has grossly overestimated her popularity among the Pakistani electorate. Such an uprising could see the army on the retreat once again, especially since Musharraf is now clearly unpopular among his peers in uniform. The permutations and combinations that may be produced in Pakistani politics as the result of such a retreat are unpredictable.
But from India’s point of view, it is safe to assume that even if Sharif returns to power, reviving the Lahore Declaration is unlikely to be his immediate priority. The most urgent task before the Sharif brothers will be to ensure their political longevity. One way of ensuring that is not to give the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi any excuse to plot another Kargil-type operation behind the backs of an elected executive. And that means going slow on anything to do with India.
India cannot hope that any future Pakistani set-up in which Sharif will have a prominent role will be inclined to revive or advance the bilateral peace process or to seek a solution on Kashmir. All the same, the UPA government must resist the temptation — assiduously promoted in the first two years of its rule by elements within it — to run down any initiative by the previous administration led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s bus trip to Pakistan eight years ago cannot be wished away merely because it altered the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s foreign policy profile, notwithstanding Kargil, which came in its wake.
In a sense, the haste, until a year ago, to somehow settle with Pakistan was the result of political advice from within the UPA to be seen to be outdoing the National Democratic Alliance in dealing with Islamabad. If the prime minister had succumbed to such advice then, he would have been carrying an albatross round his neck today. It may be easier to deal with a dictator in Pakistan than with an elected government. But as the Bush administration is realizing these days, a dictator has legitimacy only until such time as the people demand their rights and a return to representative rule. If Manmohan Singh had turned his back on that truism a year ago and embraced some of the outrageous proposals that were put to him on Kashmir, he would have discovered now that the nuclear deal with the US was a minor irritant compared to the political and foreign policy disaster that a settlement with Musharraf would have been.