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Stay tough on Pakistan

Stay tough on Pakistan

Author: Kanwal Sibal
Publication: The New Indian Express
Date: June 11, 2009
URL: http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?Title=Stay+tough+on+Pakistan&artid=ucruYvanLS8=&SectionID=d16Fdk4iJhE=&MainSectionID=HuSUEmcGnyc=&SectionName=aVlZZy44Xq0bJKAA84nwcg==&SEO=

The UPA government can now reasonably look forward to five undisturbed years of power. Its previous tenure was marred by indecision and confusion because of policy hurdles erected by the Left as well as the exertions of a gaggle of undisciplined coalition partners. Beyond that, the Congress itself temporised on some critical issues because of its need to adapt policies to electoral needs, in a bid to recover its traditional vote banks.

To many our democracy had begun to appear dysfunctional. Domestically, coalition politics was causing a drift in governance, and internationally our image was getting tarnished. This time there was much speculation at home and abroad about the kind of hybrid political product that would be machine-tooled by the elections. If a fractured verdict would have increased internal disenchantment with the political system, externally the price to pay would have been reduced confidence in our prospects and a weaker Indian voice in global forums. Just as a country's internal strength is reflected in its external posture, its internal weakness enfeebles its international stature too. A rising India, with ambitions to play an increasingly important global role, requires more confident and self-assured leadership. India cannot afford to slip backwards and hopefully these elections will put us back on track.

But do the election results mean a general endorsement of all the policies of the previous government? This question has particular pertinence with regard to foreign policy and security issues. External affairs did not figure in the polls. The Indo-US nuclear deal, which rejuvenated the image of the prime minister as a political leader, was absent. The UPA saw no gain in touting it as a triumph, and the opposition saw no advantage in castigating it as noxious. Terrorism was certainly an issue, with the UPA attacked for softness of approach, but it did not really stir electoral passions. One would have thought that a national issue of such sensitivity would weigh heavily on the country's political agenda because it touches personal and national security. The attack in Mumbai particularly scarred the nation's psyche. Whatever the blots in NDA's record in dealing with terrorism decisively, the UPA's record has been uninspiring and quite controversial. Yet, the electorate has proved undemanding on this issue. Mumbai itself saw a rather low percentage of poll participation, illustrating well the inscrutable nature of the Indian electorate.

The UPA II government, more stable internally, faces daunting external challenges. On top of the list remains Pakistan. The previous UPA government had sought to meet the security challenge from Pakistan through constructive engagement, ceding much political ground on the issue of terrorism and our sovereignty over J&K by countenancing Musharraf's proposals and allowing a play between the settlement of the internal political problem in J&K and India-Pakistan negotiations over the future of the state, not to mention army rule in Pakistan by making a military dictator our trustworthy interlocutor. This policy reached a dead-end with Musharraf's eviction from power and 26/11, the last highlighting also the limits of people to people contacts in changing the political parameters of the bilateral relationship.

Notwithstanding Pakistan's complicity in the Mumbai massacre and its subsequent attitude of defiance, denial and prevarication, we have been unable to extract proper redress either through bilateral or international pressure. The option of relying on the US has been exhausted. Ironically, instead of India continuing to pressure the US to get satisfaction on its minimum demands with regard to Pakistani action on Mumbai and on dismantling the terrorist infrastructure, it is the US that seems to be receptive to Pakistani demands that India should be persuaded somehow to resume the dialogue. Pakistan's position is even more unreasonable than before as it had earlier accepted on paper some obligations to end terrorism directed against India as a condition for resuming dialogue, but now it wants resumption even as it takes token measures and resorts to legal subterfuges to escape responsibility for a proven terrorist attack. It wants to keep the terrorism option open so long as its Kashmir demands are not met.

The deterioration of the internal situation in Pakistan has now become a priority issue for the US, weighing far more in its concerns than India's dissatisfaction over Pakistani prevarications on Mumbai. They would rather not make things more difficult for Pakistan by pressing them on India-related issues. The cooperation of the Pakistan military is so essential for US strategy in Afghanistan that the Americans are willing to overlook many darker sides of Pakistani conduct, including on the nuclear side. The military action in Swat, in line with US wishes, has given Pakistan more elbowroom to dig in its heels on India-related issues. The release of Hafiz Saeed and prime minister Gilani's revival of traditional rhetoric on Kashmir are intended to balance the action in Swat, retain equities with the Punjab-based jihadi groups even as the Pashtun Taliban groups seeding terror in Pakistan itself are being dealt with by force, and signal continuing defiance on Mumbai and a hard line posture towards India. Regrettably, the largely condition-free flow of American assistance does little to moderate Pakistan's conduct towards us.

It is baffling why on the morrow of Saeed's release and Gilani's retrogressive discourse on Kashmir, reports should appear in our press, attributed to official sources, about our willingness to resume dialogue with Pakistan. The timing is puzzling. One cannot express disappointment with the release of the JuD chief and at the same time signal our readiness to talk. Such a posture is not going to persuade Pakistan that it must act on Mumbai to clear the way for resumption of dialogue. On the contrary, it would have been fully aware of the implications of Saeed's release. They are laying down their terms of engagement with the new Indian government. Our unexpected cue would confuse our foreign interlocutors about how firm we are on the question of Mumbai. The absence of a prompt and appropriate response to Gilani's objectionable rhetoric on Kashmir not only cedes political space to Pakistan at our expense, but also shows an inexplicable softness of posture. Why should we be on the defensive when we are the wronged party? Why conjure up US pressure on us to be pliable, when we are demanding the minimum from Pakistan, much less than the US is demanding from it with regard to American concerns?

A stronger UPA II need not be in a hurry on Pakistan where the situation is fluid. It can afford to pursue a more confident and self-assured foreign policy that, by definition, excludes damaging concessions to Pakistan or any other country.

- Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary

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