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FIRST THINGS LAST

- Barack Obama’s new coalition of the willing

The taxi-driver who picked me up in Washington the other day, began praising Manmohan Singh as soon as he found out that I am Indian. There was a time when praise for the prime minister was routine in the United States of America: from corporate boardrooms to stock- exchange floors, from ethnic Indian venues to barber-shops. Not anymore. So Naeem Akram was an exception because he continued to sing praises for the United Progressive Alliance’s head of government all the way till I was dropped off home. And until I firmly insisted that he must accept my full fare Akram told me that the ride was on him because I was Singh’s compatriot. Early into the 20-minute ride, though, it was clear why this American was unstinting in his praise for the prime minister. Like Akram, Singh was born in Gah in Pakistan, the Punjab village’s only claim to fame. Akram said his village owes its solar-powered street lamps, electricity in some of its homes and hot-water for the village mosque to the prime minister’s initiative and the resultant generosity of The Energy and Resources Institute, better known worldwide by its acronym, TERI.

If this American taxi-driver could realize his fantasy, India and Pakistan would live happily ever after. It is reasonable to presume that the villagers of Gah share such a fantasy. But Gah is not the epitome of Pakistan and there are many Pakistanis outside Gah, elsewhere in their country, who would not hesitate to kill men like Akram for his views on India that he is free to air as long as he is in the US. Unrelated to the main thread of this column, Akram got in touch with me at my home a few days after the taxi-ride to tell me that he was going back to Gah to fight elections on a ticket from the Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party of the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. Some day, I hope I will reconnect with him for a case-study of Pakistan.

It has been clear from September 24, 2004 when Singh had his first encounter in New York with Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s head of state, in what was described as an hour-long one-on-one “essay in mutual comprehension”, that the prime minister’s vision of Indo-Pakistan relations is no different from the fantasy of the Washington cabbie from Gah. It is a vision that is laudable in principle, but Singh’s failure has been his inability to separate his government from that vision and free it in its thoughts and action on Pakistan.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me once that throughout the debate within his government over joining or supporting George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, he remained silent, at times even pretending to be asleep, while his aides, strategists and experts argued over the issue. The reason for his silence, Vajpayee insisted, was that the moment he signaled any personal preference for a policy, civil servants and others who ought to give him an independent assessment would tilt with the wind and tell him what they presumed he wanted to hear. To a lesser extent, P.V. Narasimha Rao did the same, especially on Pakistan, sitting at the head of long meetings with his inscrutable pout, not opening his mouth to indicate which way he was leaning. As a result, the wheels of government, the foreign-policy establishment, the internal and external intelligence agencies and, most notably, the armed forces could not take any cue from the political leadership. They dutifully did what they were supposed to do.

But not under Manmohan Singh, and especially not in his second term as prime minister. The result is that India has lost the Pakistan story as recent events in their bilateral relations clearly demonstrate. Infinitely more disastrous, in the long run, is that the government has lost its grip on its global anti-terrorism strategy with consequences that could have a severe impact on national security. If proof of this were needed, it is writ large on the 60-page minutes of the Foreign Service Board, which took place only weeks before France intervened militarily in Mali to rescue that country from al Qaida and other Islamist militants. Oblivious to the impending military escalation, the board continued merrily to post diplomats at Bamako, Mali’s capital, where New Delhi has a small mission, which it opened three and a half years ago. To this day, the ministry of external affairs has not converted Bamako into a ‘non-family’ station and is, therefore, risking the safety and lives of Indian personnel.

From time to time, especially when French presidents are about to visit New Delhi, the government makes much of its ‘strategic dialogue’ with Paris. What is the worth of this dialogue if France did not tell India reasonably in advance about its military intervention in Islamist-infested Mali? And what is the government’s intelligence worth if it could not anticipate the crisis in Bamako as reflected in the business-as-usual approach evident in the decisions of the Foreign Service Board?

Forget the strategic dialogue with France for the moment. As a member of the United Nations security council, India was party to a unanimous council decision on December 20 to deploy an African-led military force to help defeat Islamist militants in northern Mali. It is a reflection of the intense disconnect within the UPA government on national security that when these security council documents are on tables on Raisina Hill, its approach to global terrorism is adrift. It is the same pattern of disconnect in the US that enabled Osama bin Laden to execute the September 11 attacks.

It may be comforting to sit in Lutyens’ Delhi and think that Bamako is a far-away capital, no Indian plane has been hijacked there and, therefore, it is not critical to Indian interests unlike, for example, Kandahar or Kabul. But that would be a false comfort, for which the country could pay dearly one day.

The French military intervention in Mali, in which the US is now indirectly participating with aerial refueling and transportation of supporting troops from Chad and Togo, is not a development in isolation. It is part of a new strategy by Western powers to deal with Islamic extremism worldwide, in which Libya was the curtain-raiser. On Monday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, made it plain that the strategy in Libya, which was riddled with faults, has been refined in Mali and would be further sharpened in Syria with the sole aim of preventing Damascus from falling into radical Muslim hands when Bashar al Assad is forced out of power.

India must look at this strategy in conjunction with what is happening behind the scenes in Afghanistan. When the presidents, Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai, agreed to speed up the withdrawal of the American troops they did not do so blindly to let Afghanistan descend into chaos. They are putting together a diplomatic and security infrastructure in Kabul that will be managed, in addition to the US and the Karzai government, by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The ‘chairman emeritus’ of this arrangement will be Pakistan. This is Obama’s new global “coalition of the willing”, which will eventually groom and manage foot-soldiers in the fight against Mali-type insurgencies, terrorism in Benghazi of the variety that killed the US ambassador, and guarantee that Damascus does not become an al Qaida haven.

The writings on the wall are already clear: the nuanced sentencing in Chicago of Lashkar-e-Toiba’s David Headley for the Mumbai plot and an assertion last month by the US state department that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is immune from prosecution in New York on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks are proof that Washington and Islamabad have kissed and made up in order to operationalize Obama’s new “coalition of the willing” with support from Britain, and indeed from the Western powers.

India could have seen all this coming but for a prime minister who is intent on somehow visiting Gah before laying down office. Singh’s office became complicitly obsessed with that objective and surrendered coherence in policy. Yes, it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan any more, but not the way the prime minister meant it on January 15. Because Pakistan is now in a new business, which could push India into the red unless the UPA government pulls itself up by its bootstraps.