NATIONAL

India and the prism of Pakistan

After an effective diplomatic offensive which resulted in legitimate Indian concerns being more widely recognised by the international community, is India in danger of overplaying the Pakistan ``card''?

In recent weeks, there have been obvious signs of impatience in Western capitals with what is seen as the increasingly Pakistan-centric drift in Indian foreign policy. The message which India has been getting is: stop seeing the world through the ``prism'' of Pakistan.

First Chris Patten, the European Union's Commissioner for External Affairs, conveyed this in so many words through an interview to an Indian newspaper; then despite India's insistence the E.U. refused to include a reference to Pakistan in the context of cross-border terrorism in its final declaration after the India-European Business Summit in Copenhagen, and later in Britain the same message was played back to the External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, last week.

At a joint press conference with Mr. Sinha, the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, went out of his way to stress that ``the relationship between our two countries should not be defined through the prism of Kashmir''. It is significant that his choice of words was the same as Mr. Patten's and there was no obvious ``provocation'' for his remarks except his own reference to the elections in Jammu and Kashmir. It seemed that he simply intended to make the point, and Mr. Sinha was quick to grasp it. He assured his host that the bilateral relations between India and Britain were not a ``hostage in any sense to Pakistan-India relationship''.

So, why did Mr. Patten and Mr. Straw say what they said, and why did Mr. Sinha feel it was necessary to respond? It is not that London and Brussels have become less sympathetic to New Delhi's concerns, but a slight irritation appears to be creeping in as visiting Indian leaders keep ``banging on'' about Pakistan. One commentator likened India-Pakistan relations to an ``apparition which is always in the room'' whenever Indian leaders meet their Western counterparts either as guests or hosts.

Indian accusations of Western ``double standards'' over terrorism are beginning to sound in many capitals as ``tantrums,'' and its refusal to talk to Pakistan until the last Pak.-inspired infiltrator has gone home is seen as obduracy. Britain has been calling for the resumption of a dialogue, and just a few days ago Richard Haass of the U.S. State Department told Indian journalists in New Delhi that it was an issue on which India had to ``mull over''.

Mr. Sinha's own rhetoric during the brief period he has been External Affairs Minister has been pretty hawkish. He has been to Britain twice in recent weeks, and on both occasions he breathed fire and brimstone. His concern over the rise of extremist religious parties in Pakistan caused some amusement, given the character of his own party and the fact that similar ``concern'' was expressed in Pakistan when the BJP came to power.

Mr. Sinha has reason to be pleased with his performance at the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers' conference where almost single-handedly he kept Pakistan out of the charm circle. But sceptics wonder whether Mr. Sinha's inspired bravura performance, which saw him catapulted from being in a ``minority of one'' to a match-winner, was prompted solely by a desire to defend democracy. Would he have prosecuted the case for democracy with the same passion if, for instance, Zimbabwe rather than Pakistan had been in the dock, they are asking.

Britons, certainly, are not amused that their well-laid behind-the-scenes plans to readmit Pakistan into the Commonwealth were spoilt by India, and though there has been no public comment this is likely to be seen as a confirmation of India's ``Pak.-centric'' diplomacy. The perception is that the Indian response to the West's opportunistic wooing of Islamabad after September 11 has been frequently churlish, and constant sniping by the BJP's top guns has not helped.

Also, speculation about the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's health and the appointment of L.K. Advani as the Deputy Prime Minister, who is seen here as a formidable hawk, have fuelled fears over a hardening of the Indian policy on Pakistan. Hence the message: calm down, we are trying to help but meanwhile let's get on with our bilateral business.

Meanwhile, now that war clouds over the subcontinent have dispersed, the West feels less under pressure, and is therefore unlikely to encourage too many ``tantrums'' from either country.

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