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From Kabul to Colaba

From Kabul to Colaba

Author: Y P Rajesh
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 3, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/from-kabul-to-colaba/524420/

Introduction: India's Pakistan policy must avoid the short-term games that others can play better

Over the last few weeks, the gridlocked roads of Mumbai have occasionally been greeted by the rather incongruous sight of an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), parked near a busy junction or tailing a Ganesha immersion procession. Travel advisories warning of the possibility of terror attacks have come from even as hardy a country as Israel and spooked visitors. The US Consulate was first off the block with a security drill last week and the Mumbai Police followed it up with one of their own near the mission and at some malls, showing up with commandos and the APC.

It has been 10 months since the November 26 terror attack, and local as well as foreign security establishments have been unable to hide their nervousness in the face of the series of opportunities for the jihad factory across the border: the Ganesha festival, followed by Ramzan, Jewish holidays, Dushera, Maharashtra elections and Diwali. Or the fear of just a random day on the calendar such as November 26 becoming victim to the larger geopolitical crisis in South Asia. And now, a respected American newspaper writes about how the Lashkar-e-Toiba has actually grown in strength and that the Pakistani establishment has pretty much been unable to do anything about it, and more attacks in India cannot be ruled out.

The APC, therefore, is not as much a surprise - even though it would seem more at home on Residency Road or at Lal Chowk in Srinagar - as it is a tactic, one of "area domination" that sends out a clear signal that forces are present and ready to take on the enemy. It is a good deterrent but never fool-proof. Not in the face of the much larger tactical games being played across the border with such regular and predictable frequency that it would be insulting India's intelligence if it isn't seen through. To be fair to diplomats who have turned grey dealing with Islamabad and its games, there is an awareness in South Block that the India-Pakistan engagement in the last decade or so has become more a game of chess. And one that they don't have complete control over even when it comes to their own moves because of the overarching political hand that makes and guides policy as it rightly should.

Flashback to the Lahore bus diplomacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Kargil fiasco that followed a decade ago. Cut to the attack on Parliament in December 2001 which led to Operation Parakram and the two-year hiatus in relations between the two countries and the fear of a nuclear war. The serial bomb blasts on Mumbai's local trains in 2006 once again saw "peace-talks" being suspended only to be revived after the formation of a comic face-saver called the Joint Terror Mechanism. Mumbai 26/11 is becoming an all too familiar repeat performance. Suspension of talks, meetings between leaders of the two countries on foreign soil, a semantic concession here, a nudge and a wink from Washington there, a few months of quiet amid an exchange of evidence, dossiers and stray hot words, and it is back to business as usual.

The stray rays of hope that emerged in this decade died as much for their radicalness as for their differing perceptions on either side. The backchannel diplomacy between President Musharraf's regime and the Manmohan Singh government which explored an out-of-the box solution to Kashmir such as creating soft borders, encouraging trade and movement of people and eventually some form of autonomy agreeable to both countries, was the boldest idea to emerge vis-à-vis Kashmir in recent times. Although both sides felt this could be a win-win solution to start with, Musharraf's own instability and eventual departure and South Block's subsequent smugness that it may have outstared the rival brought complacency back into the equation until 26/11 shocked India back to reality.

The now-visible, now-invisible third force, Washington, needs to shoulder a considerable portion of the blame for this flux. Whether it was George W. Bush taking his eye away from Afghanistan to slay non-existent demons in Iraq or Obama returning with a muscular Af-Pak policy, Washington has allowed Islamabad to play around with its pawns and plan diversions that have triggered havoc from Kabul to Colaba. Which brings us to the timing of the semantic concessions India made to Pakistan at Sharm el-Sheikh, just before the Afghan presidential elections in which Washington invested much to further its Af-Pak strategy and is now increasingly looking like a millstone in the face of Pakistan's intransigence to act against the likes of Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed.
Now, as we hear Indian ministers saying that "enough evidence has been given to Pakistan", and that tired old line of "Islamabad must dismantle the infrastructure of terror before talks can resume", India's Pakistan policy is beginning to appear emaciated. No one can grudge a Vajpayee or a Manmohan Singh their desire to make history by resolving the Pakistan problem and leave that behind as their legacy. But that can only be possible after Pakistan overcomes its delusions and rises as a responsible state with whom neighbours can do business. Until then, India's Pakistan policy needs to be realistic, avoiding the pitfalls of short-term tactical games that others in the ring are adept at playing. If that means strengthening our defences with APCs and raising the pitch through more aggressive coercive diplomacy like in 2002, it would be money and effort well-spent in the short term. Just as sections of the media and the strategic community need to stand down on the needless heat raised about China, the government needs to stand up and infuse some fresh thinking and energy into its Pakistan strategy.

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