In strategic wilderness
11 February 2002
New Delhi: Months after September 11, 2001 — and after an initial flurry of activity following the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament — India appears to be in a kind of “strategic wilderness”. Instead of riding the crest of the anti-terrorism wave, we are increasingly being forced on to the backfoot, and having to justify our actions.
The leadership seems to have run out of steam just when it should have been going full throttle. The world is even beginning to say sotto voce that in striking a pose we were turning increasingly gauche, intransigent, and even bullying. Our adversary — General Musharraf specifically — is on the other hand being perceived by the world community as not merely nimble-footed and statesmanlike, but almost as if he were the new hope and messiah of modern Islam.
We have ourselves much to blame for this state of affairs. An inherent lack of dynamism marks our dealings with the rest of the world, even as we are seen to be fixated on Pakistan. Vis-à-vis Pakistan, the unchanging nature of our liturgy — of no business until cross-border terrorism ends — makes our policies seem bankrupt.
We appear to be losing supporters instead of adding to them at this time, despite our credentials in fighting terrorism for more than a quarter of a century. Much of the sympathy that we had garnered as victims of terrorism also appears to have been dissipated, thanks to our policy mistakes. Today we cannot be too sure who our true friends and supporters are.
Relations with the US have taken on a chameleon-like quality. Russia mouths platitudes but is less forthcoming when it comes to specifics. The UK for its part maintains a “teflon-like” approach.
One reason, perhaps, for our predicament is that we are seen to have not done enough, following the stand-off with Pakistan post-December 13, 2001 to assuage the fears of the international community — real or imaginary — about a nuclear conflict. Anxiety remains high about a potential nuclear conflict — with Kashmir becoming the flash-point for such a conflict — but India has not managed to convince the world that, for its part, it had done everything possible to prevent a nuclear holocaust.
We have also failed to convey to the world that India’s “no-first-use policy” is the surest safeguard that it would never start a nuclear war. Our spokespersons who are generally perceived to be pedantic in style, giving an impression of being rigid and unimaginative, have also been unable to provide suitable and convincing answers.
The rest of the world does not also appear to have taken too kindly to India’s reaction — or rather the lack of it — to Gen. Musharraf’s address of January 12, 2002. The absence of a swift considered response, perhaps reflects a malaise affecting our system, but the world reads it differently. Musharraf’s speech has been widely acknowledged to be out of the ordinary, as marking a U-turn in the affairs of Pakistan, and as likely to have a major impact on the region and even outside it.
The international community would have preferred to have India’s interpretation before it pronounced judgement as to whether Musharraf really meant what he said about wanting to transform Pakistan, change it from being a terrorist haven to a more modern forward-looking state, and of projecting a modern and moderate face of Islam.
Strategic analysts have commented adversely on the fact that it took India almost two days to come out with even a “tepid response”, one which was merely confined to extending a “cautious welcome” to the speech. By default, therefore, India seems to have damaged its own cause, while Pakistan eminently succeeded in its.
This is not all. Most experts tend to believe that Gen. Musharraf’s tactics of addressing the concerns of the international community on terrorism while simultaneously pressing for a solution to the Kashmir dispute — and appealing to countries like the US to play a role in the resolution of the Kashmir tangle — has helped to rivet international attention on the Kashmir conflict.
Also that, the issue of Kashmir as the cause of tensions in the South Asian region had now taken firmer root, alongside the need to effect a change in the status-quo, if these tensions are to subside. The need to meet the aspirations of the “Kashmiri people”, as also a role for Pakistan in sorting out matters had also come under focus more clearly than before. India’s “missed opportunity” thus seems likely to cost it dearly.
This absence of focused attention on issues of strategic importance, as against fire-fighting on day to day matters, can prove to be a serious handicap. A proper construct on US President, George Bush’s State of the Union address of January 29, 2002, for instance, has yet to emerge out of South Block, though it has critical policy implications.
Quite a few strategic thinkers hew to the view that it amounts to a new Bush doctrine, but we are yet to make a detailed analysis of the implications of this speech for us. Similarly, references to “trilateral cooperation” between Russia, India and China during the Russian foreign minister’s visit to New Delhi has major strategic implications, specially since the concept of a “strategic triangle” involving the three countries, which had previously been mooted, proved to be a non-starter. How such trilateral cooperation can be brought about since the axis between Pakistan-China remains strong, and in the light of the near-total dependence of Pakistan on the latter in nuclear and missile capabilities, certainly demands a considered explanation.
India hence needs to get its priorities right. We must calibrate our actions, based on a system and structure of needs and priorities. This will necessitate that those at the “top of the heap” spend more time and effort, and also engage the bureaucracy and others in a more sustained manner in analysing such issues. Addressing audiences outside the country, however grandiose sounding such forums may be, should have lesser priority, is best left to seasoned diplomats.
If Pakistan is our main priority — as it should be — then we need to concentrate on the essentials. The Prime Minister was right in observing (Dehra Dun, February 7) that a “crisis of confidence” exists between India and Pakistan, and that this needs to be sorted out before any improvement in relations can take place.
He also referred to past betrayals in this context, and why restoration of confidence was needed before a fruitful dialogue could commence. There is little evidence, however, that sufficient time and attention is being bestowed on how to bring about this kind of mutual confidence. Seeking an end to cross-border terrorism is, no doubt, an important requirement, but without some matching step from our side, restoration of mutual confidence is unlikely to occur.
India needs to be more agile, for it is often unable to respond suitably and in time to Pakistan’s rapid-fire in these matters. It hence stands in danger of being “outgunned” by a General who seems to be employing tactics that he had used as the head of the SSG. Twice during January this year, Gen. Musharraf outlined steps which he claimed would reduce tensions viz. an offer to hold talks on the phased withdrawal of troops, restoration (on a reciprocal basis) of air, rail and road links that had been severed after January 1; resumption of the official dialogue, and acceptance of Kashmir as central to the dispute, etc.
However, on the occasion of Kashmir Solidarity Day (February 5), President Musharraf reverted to form, and the rhetoric of 1990, insisting that Kashmir was central to Indo-Pak relations and accusing Prime Minister, Vajpayee of “brinkmanship”. While this would confirm India’s suspicions about Musharraf not having had any change of heart, we need to do much better in check-mating his moves which are primarily aimed at convincing international audiences of his bona fides.
We will not, however, be able to deflect for much longer the pressures that are growing for a new approach to the Kashmir issue from our side, and of finding a proper solution to this endemic problem. With the pacification of Europe, US efforts — as also that of the rest of the international community — will increasingly be devoted to regions such as Palestine and Kashmir, which are seen as today’s “hot spots”.
We must have an acceptable answer to the sustained moves to trilateralise the problem involving India, Pakistan, and the “Kashmiri people”. A determined effort must begin, and in earnest, to enlarge the pool of ideas on the subject of Kashmir and usher in greater creative thinking. Far greater interaction with scholars and experts within the country is necessary so as to be able to come up with new and innovative constructs. We will not find the answers that we need in London, Paris, Munich or Washington.
The Cabinet Committee on Security, sitting as the National Security Council, must become more involved in finding a solution. The key members and the National Security Adviser will find it of advantage to spend a little more time with home-grown experts rather than with outsiders who have their own agendas. A more comprehensive approach to try and settle this vexed problem has hence become necessary.