Siddharth Varadarajan

Domestic political turmoil will add to choppiness of India policy

New Delhi: There are two ways of interpreting Friday’s claim by Pakistani naval chief Noman Bashir that Ajmal Amir Iman ‘Kasab’ – the lone surviving gunman from last November’s terrorist attack on Mumbai – did not use the “sea route” to arrive in India.

The statement is astonishing mostly because it runs totally counter to what the government of Pakistan formally put out in a press conference held by its Interior Adviser Rehman Malik on February 1. At the time, Mr. Malik not only acknowledged that a part of the Mumbai terror conspiracy had been hatched in Pakistan but also confirmed the use of the “sea route” and provided details about the use of boats by the terrorists that India was not even aware of.

The first and most benign explanation for this flip-flop is that the admiral is seeking to deflect any criticism of the Pakistani Navy and Coast Guard for having failed to detect or stop the terrorists from launching their attack on Mumbai. His observation that the Indian Navy was “10 times bigger” than Pakistan’s and that the Pakistanis could not be blamed for failing to prevent the attack when the Indians themselves proved unable to do so suggests the Navy Chief was not contesting the reality of the sea voyage so much as protecting his service from the charge of incompetence or even collusion.

A second – and more ominous — possibility could be that the Pakistani military is taking advantage of the political turmoil into which the country has now plunged following the do-or-die struggle between President Asif Ali Zardari and Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to flex its own muscles.

With Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani on a visit to the United States – where he was inducted into the U.S. Army’s ‘Hall of Fame’ at a ceremony in Fort Leavenworth on Thursday – the military establishment may have decided the first salvo against civilian authority was best fired by the least conspicuous service, the Navy.

While it will not be easy for the military establishment to revert to the earlier policy of denial which it imposed on the civilian government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in the first few weeks following the Mumbai attacks, slowing down the pace and intensity of the Federal Investigation Agency’s probe into the plotters would not be so difficult. As it is, India and Pakistan are now entering uncharted legal territory. Trying a conspiracy case in two separate venues is difficult at the best of times. When prosecutors on both sides distrust each other, it is not hard to imagine the case getting stuck in ‘procedural’ and judicial delays of one kind or another.

That President Zardari and the military have not always seen eye to eye on the Mumbai incident was demonstrated by earlier flip-flops on the question of whether the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency should visit Delhi, the nationality of ‘Kasab,’ and the authenticity of the investigative leads India provided in its dossier to Pakistan last month.

In the end, however, the President was able to have his way. Pakistan’s acknowledgment of the fact that its soil had been used to stage the Mumbai attack marked a potential watershed in the bilateral relationship, even if some of the ‘30 questions’ it posed to India suggested an unhealthy degree of scepticism about the broad facts of the case.

Mr. Zardari’s decision to sack the special public prosecutor handling the case against the Mumbai co-conspirators after he said that Pakistan wanted ‘Kasab’ to be extradited from India is a further sign of his intention to avoid complicating bilateral relations with unhelpful and impolitic demands. And yet, it is clear that the imperative of domestic political survival will weaken his hands as far as policy towards India is concerned.

With the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) now locked in mortal combat, Mr. Sharif will end up strengthening his relations with Islamist parties and groups. On his part, Mr. Zardari must perforce embrace the PML (Q), the erstwhile King’s party and favourite of the military establishment. Both of these new equations will further reduce the political space that is available in Pakistan for a frontal assault on the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadi organisations.

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