The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There is not a single good reason for India to fall into the trap that Pakistan sets for it year after year at the United Nations general assembly — provoking it to speak on Jammu and Kashmir. Yet successive Indian prime ministers have willingly walked into that trap and the media has gone to town on how a fitting reply was given to Pakistan.

There is a genuine dilemma that the Indian establishment faces in New York every September — to react to or to ignore Pakistani provocation. Responding necessarily means raising the temperature in the relationship. But not reacting could mean upsetting the domestic constituency. Politicians being tactical thinkers choose to give as good as they get from Islamabad.

Then they go on to presume that they have done a good job and the public opinion back home has been satiated; that people would now believe that Pakistan has been worsted in front of the entire world. What better proof could there be of our prime minister being on the ball than his sharp reactions and his unambiguous stand on terrorism' The resemblance of this annual ritual to the over-stylized and eminently predictable World Wrestling Federation contests is uncanny.

One can understand why General Pervez Musharraf chooses to be provocative on Kashmir. If he adopted a moderate approach and said, for example, that India and Pakistan must move forward on those issues which are not intractable and create an atmosphere for the successful resolution of the Kashmir issue, he would come across as a moderate leader. His stature would go up internationally. The world would respect him as a statesman.

But back home, in Pakistan, his credibility would take a nose-dive among the Islamic nationalists, the Pakistani army and the bureaucracy. They would see him protecting national interest only if he was belligerent on Kashmir. For Musharraf, therefore, attacking India at the UN general assembly means consolidating his position domestically.

But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee does not have the same compulsions. He does not need to score debating points with Musharraf. The Indian establishment is not congenitally anti-Pakistan. Each time that Vajpayee has extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan, the people of India have cheered him. But for the stray and ultimately ineffective voices of some Hindutva ideologues, there has hardly been any criticism of Vajpayee for his peace overtures to Pakistan — even when they have failed.

A reason for Vajpayee to react the way he did could well be that he personally does not trust General Pervez Musharraf. There are indications that India is preparing to deal with a post-Musharraf Pakistan — some even claim that the Indian prime minister already talks of General Musharraf as if he were part of a chapter behind him.

In that case, then, it makes eminent sense for India to do what it is doing — continue criticizing the Pakistani establishment while encouraging people-to-people contact, forging trade and cultural links with Pakistan. It is worthwhile telling the Pakistani people that India is not inimical to them; that it is their leadership that is the problem. However, even this cannot be a sufficient reason for the kind of one-upmanship that went on in New York.

It can be argued that this ritual of trading charges and counter-charges cannot and does not go to India’s advantage. India comes across as a helpless nation, unable to deal with a minor issue like Kashmir. In normal times, India believes that Jammu and Kashmir is not a major international issue. Yet come September, a country six times the size of Pakistan is reduced to one-sixth its size over Kashmir. India never tires of forcing its allies to come out in open support for its membership of an expanded UN security council. However, a country that appears unable to deal with minor issues in its backyard does not even stand a fighting chance of getting on to a body that is expected to fight larger international fires.

The predictable Indian reaction year after year at the UN encourages Pakistan to continue its support for cross-border terrorism and keep up its rhetoric on Kashmir. India then is constantly kept in a reactive mode. We can expect to see New Delhi in this mode again when the Organization of Islamic Conferences meets in Malaysia next and, prompted by Pakistan, predictably criticizes India on Kashmir. The OIC is a self-righteous body which refuses to look at the condition of Muslims within the territory of its member countries but waxes eloquent about Muslims elsewhere. Instead of treating it with the disdain it deserves, India is bound to be excited the moment it hears the K-word.

Responding to Pakistani provocation on Kashmir also does something far more dangerous — it tends to make India beholden to states which New Delhi thinks have leverage over Pakistan. Pakistan’s role in cross-border terrorism becomes a mantra to be repeated in New York with every head of state of any consequence that the Indian prime minister meets. The Indian canvas for dealing with the world is thus effectively shrunk.

The public sparring with Pakistan makes sense only if one argues that the Indian prime minister was addressing not his domestic audience but public opinion in America that is divided over whether Pakistan is a friend or a foe in the war against terrorism. Many believe that the president of the United States of America, George W. Bush, is making a mistake in counting on Pakistan as a reliable ally in the war against terrorism and they are pointing to the relationship between the Pakistani establishment and Islamic fundamentalists.

Pakistan today remains a fertile ground for the recruitment of Islamic fundamentalists. Some estimates suggest that nearly 7,000 youngsters have been recruited by these groups over the last three months. The Western media has also been pointing to the continued involvement of Islamabad in Afghanistan — the arrest of three Pakistani army officers in early September for suspected ties with al Qaida and the reports that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was sheltered by a serving army major before being arrested from Rawalpindi have led Western countries to suspect that the Pakistani establishment still sees the taliban as a useful instrument for future developments in Afghanistan.

A US news magazine even reported that when, earlier this summer the American deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, showed Musharraf satellite pictures of functioning militant camps in Pakistan, the general was outraged. The magazine noted: “It wasn’t clear to the Americans whether he was angry that the camps were functioning or that the US had uncovered them.”

There is, therefore, a body of opinion gathering ground in the US which holds that if something is intrinsically bad, then associating with it cannot lead to anything good — that is, promoting Osama bin Laden one day, the taliban the next and Pakistan the day after cannot lead to winning the war against terrorism. Vajpayee perhaps is appealing to this opinion in America.

The hope being that if there is a political change in the US, then, in the new administration, the policies towards Pakistan would also change. It is only in this context that the sparring with Pakistan in New York makes a limited sort of sense.

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