It is incumbent upon the Indian political leadership to help create and sustain a constituency for peace and sanity in Pakistan
From the depths of her loss, the grieving wife of the soldier who was slain at the Line of Control (LoC) has declared that she will not accept any compensation from the Bihar government unless “action” is taken against Pakistan. A widow’s grief is understandable. What is not, though, is why the nightly, outrage industry has gone into overdrive demanding an apology from a minister in Nitish Kumar’s government for pointing out that soldiers do die on the border. No doubt, the death of any citizen at the hands of external forces cannot be easily brushed aside, much less the martyrdom of a soldier, because he represents the sovereign. In our case, every solider embodies the Indian state and its sovereignty. Yet, let it be reiterated, there is nothing unusual about soldiers dying in the combat zone.
Equally incomprehensible is the outrage industry’s continuing delusion — despite being fully aware of the 60-year history of an intractable, bloody and ugly relationship — that Pakistan is an errant schoolboy who can be easily tamed, disciplined and, if need be, spanked.
Not to be outdone, a straggling posse of about three dozen “strategic experts” has also pitched in, demanding that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should rethink his proposed conversation with his Pakistani counterpart later next month in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The argument is that any conversation with Pakistan would be an undesirable and unnecessary act of appeasement.
The list of signatories to this “no summit in New York” démarche is an impressive roll-call of men of experience. These include men who are intimately familiar with the extent and limit of Indian defence capabilities; in particular, some of them must be only too familiar with our generals’ gift for braggadocio and grandstanding. Some of them achieved their operational manhood when they helped the political leadership script the terms of surrender at Kandahar in the closing days of 1999. Some of them were in positions of responsibility when a Prime Minister allowed himself to be provoked by a television reporter into impetuously promising an “aar paar ke ladai” with Pakistan after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament. And perhaps each one of them has made his personal, painful discovery that the very political heavyweights who were thought to be men of Churchillian resolve turned out to be men with feet of clay. And, of course, some of them hope to man the national security ramparts in a Narendra Modi regime next May.
Whatever their political biases, these men firmly belong to the “Punish Pakistan” school. The subtext of their argument is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leaders cannot be trusted to engage Pakistan without compromising our national interests; on the other hand, the unstated assumption is that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) crowd is endowed with foresight, prescience and wisdom to see through the Pakistani stratagem.
This school refuses to recognise that our decisive, conventional, defence superiority over Pakistan became a thing of the past within a week of that triumphant moment in the sands of Pokhran in 1998. But we continue to believe that there are muscular options available — and that these options are easily evident to everyone except the timidest of the decision-makers. And a new, “bold,” political leader would not hesitate to empower our brave soldiers to “sort out” the irksome “Pakis.”
It is one thing for a demagogue to reinvent the “biryani” allegory; it is an altogether serious matter for our experienced, foreign policy hands to abet the demagogue’s delusions. Take the grand deshbhakta response to the most audacious affront to Indian democracy on December 13, 2001. The “punish Pakistan” school chooses to remain convinced that our response was efficacious and an imaginative exercise in coercive diplomacy.
On the other hand, Jaswant Singh, a key decision-maker at that time, has had the courage and intellectual honesty to record what a taxing task he had on his hands to convince his political colleagues as well as the itchy “chiefs” of the usefulness of a “restraint (in that context) as a strategic asset for avoiding conflict.”
The much touted coercive diplomacy of Operation Parakram ended in a whimper, with over a thousand soldiers losing their lives. Those in the NDA government are entitled to claim that this year-long quasi-confrontation achieved its diplomatic aims, but the world did not share that sanguine view.
This is what Mr. Bruce O. Riedel has to say about Operation Parakram in his most recent book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back. As a highly networked policy-wonk in Washington, he was naturally and easily allowed [during the stand-off with Pakistan] access to “an advanced Indian air force jet fighter base….the pilots were frustrated. They had been preparing for war for nine months now, and they were ready. As professionals, they were eager to do their job. But the order never came, and a month later they would be told to stand down.”
And, Mr. Riedel rubs it in: “From the Thar Desert to Fort Williams in Kolkata, the Indian military academy in Pune, and military headquarters in New Delhi, we heard the same argument: India cannot let Pakistan get away with terrorism; it must pay a price. Nonetheless, in 2002, Pakistan got away with it.”
Pakistan remained unrebuked, and yet Prime Minister Vajpayee travelled to Islamabad to put faith in the words of an untrustworthy general. Prime Minister Singh has only carried forward the Vajpayee-Brijesh Mishra line of engagement with Islamabad in the hope of tapping the saner elements in the Pakistani establishment and society. No one is, nor can anyone be unaware that the Pakistan Army has institutionalised duplicity. Yet it has become incumbent upon the Indian political leadership to try to help create and sustain a constituency for peace and sanity in Pakistan.
The alternative to the Vajpayee-Brajesh Mishra-Manmohan Singh line is a policy of uncompromising, perpetual, frozen hostility towards Pakistan; it will not be without its costs, at home and abroad. It is no rocket science to understand that the jihadi elements (including those in the Pakistan Army) devoutly wish to keep cranking up India-Pakistan tensions, in the malevolent hope of bringing the Kashmir issue back on the front-burner. And, let there be no confusion; this confrontational approach is electorally attractive to a section of our political leadership, itching to reintroduce the Huntingtonian clash of cultures in India. In the process, India can only hand over to Pakistan the ultimate victory by becoming like Pakistan, home to jingoism, xenophobia and rough patriotism.
The latest dust-up has posed a larger question: must our democratic energy become a source of weakness in the conduct of foreign policy? Will every local incident and tactical fracas result in forcing our strategic hand? Will every ceasefire violation lead to a full-scale war? Domestic, political cussedness has already complicated equations with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; we are incapable of even a hint of magnanimity in our approach to the neighbours and then we sulk that they are cozying up to China. It is time we understood that all the screaming and shouting in television studios does not add up to strategic muscle. It is time for the demagogues and their strategic spear-carriers to grow up.
(Harish Khare is a senior journalist and former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is currently a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow.)