Whether Atal Bihari Vajpayee meets him one-on-one or not, US Secretary of State Colin Powell will find New Delhi a pricklier place than on his last visit. A lesser diplomat would have wondered why it should be so.
But Powell would figure out soon enough that at at the tip of this new prickliness is an old problem called ‘‘hyphenation”, though the Americans now prefer to call it ‘‘choreography”. It means that Washington believes the progress in the India-Pakistan relationship will be incremental. It will also entail visible and predictable steps from each side responding to the other.
So if Pakistan greatly reduces (but doesn’t end) infiltration, India needs to respond with a de-escalatory step as well, more substantive than a mere offer to open up the air space. Then Washington can lean on Pakistan to deliver a bit more on its promise to end terrorism permanently and, further, in response India should take another matching step.
This, for the US, is choreography. For India, in the immediate context, this means conceding too much too soon to a diplomacy of blackmail using terrorism as a weapon. In the big picture, it harks back to the old US fixation with equating India and Pakistan and a hyphenated policy towards the region.
India believes that, as it had always suspected, Pakistan is successfully indulging in squeeze play with its western backers who need it as much as it needs them. So Powell will be given the serial ‘I-told-you-so…’ treatment by his Indian interlocutors.
India has good reason for irritation and disappointment. But if its expectations from coercive diplomacy are realistic, it should also have cause for satisfaction. The anger comes from the fact that the unequivocal promise to end terrorism conveyed by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has not been fully kept. Some infiltration is on, the camps, the infrastructure of terrorism is there, radio intercepts have grown lately in their frequency as well as the belligerent intent, threats are being held out to Kashmir politicians against participating in the elections.
While diplomatic coercion is useful, we must not get carried away. It is one thing to peg our entire relationship with Pakistan to Musharraf ending terrorism. But must we tie our larger relationship with the US also on Musharraf ending terrorism?
The US and Britain say, give Musharraf more time. They want us to appreciate his constraints. Our response is, which politician doesn’t have constraints? You think we don’t have any? If we pull back our forces without achieving anything, won’t our voters thrash us? So should we bother more about our constraints or Musharraf’s? Similarly, when we are told to understand the precariousness of Musharraf’s condition and worry about the consequences in case he was overthrown, our response is, so what? How does it matter to us? It’s not as if he is sending greeting cards to us.
But we must not let this irritation cloud our judgement and overlook the gains we have already made through a policy that has worked quite marvellously so far. If it is to continue to deliver we must not let emotion get the better of calculation.
In the first half of this year, casualties among the armed forces are nearly a third of what they were in the corresponding period last year. The soldier-to-terrorist kill ratio in Kashmir this year has been close to 1:10 and is getting better. In some periods it has been as high as 1:14.
Powell is coming to the subcontinent, not to caress our tail or twist Pakistan’s. He is coming to further his country’s national interest. How we use the visit would depend entirely on how well we build on what’s been growing into a fine relationship
True, some major terrorist strikes have taken place. But the overall balance is dramatically better. These are some of the gains from resolute diplomacy riding an unprecedented military buildup.
Any sustained campaign, diplomatic or military, needs its pauses when combatants review their successes and failures, fine-tune strategy, tend to their wounds. Powell’s visit is a timely one and gives us an opportunity for some mid-course correction.
While diplomatic coercion is useful we must not get carried away and, unwittingly, re-hyphenate our relationship with the US. It is one thing to peg our entire relationship with Pakistan to Musharraf ending terrorism. But must we tie our larger relationship with the US also on Musharraf ending terrorism? Must we give Musharraf a veto on what kind of relationship we build with the US?
While Pakistan has been a relatively patchy area thanks to its increased relevance after 9/11, the Indo-US relationship has flowered in so many other areas. The most significant change is in the military/security relationship and it is well known in Washington that while in the past the Pentagon was extremely suspicious of India, it is today impatient to drive the relationship forward.
The joint defence group has met twice. More joint exercises are likely soon. Crucial military hardware and electronics are on offer. The current heads of our space and nuclear programmes, K. Kasturirangan and A. Kakodkar have both been to the US for high-level meetings. Just the other day, Kakodkar’s illustrious predecessor R. Chidambaram was even denied a visa by the Americans.
It would help if we also looked at some of these gains rather than only notice the debt write-offs and freebies being handed out to Pakistan and turn green with envy.
So far, India and US had managed this new relationship quite maturely, building on areas of agreement and avoiding getting too excited over the differences. Former US diplomat and South Asia expert Dennis Kux acknowledged this in his article ‘India’s Fine Balance’ (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002). ‘‘One noteworthy feature of the improvement in relations has been a conscious effort to avoid diplomatic pinpricks,” he writes. He quotes in support of his argument India’s choosing not to publicly criticise Bush for naming Iran as a part of the ‘‘axis of evil” while it ‘‘privately conveyed its doubts on the wisdom” of that statement.
Even on the Kyoto protocol, he notes, India publicly dwelt on only the positive aspects of Bush’s opposition. Similarly, when India conducted an Agni test in January this year, the US reaction, he says, was much more muted than those of the Europeans and the Japanese. But he also predicted that this new maturity was going to be tested by Washington’s sudden re-embracing of Musharraf.
This reality is not going to change in a hurry. Powell is coming to the subcontinent, not to caress our tail or twist Pakistan’s. He is coming to further his own country’s national interest. He will search for areas where his country’s and our interests converge and build on them. How we use the visit to carry our diplomatic success forward would depend entirely on how well we reason, negotiate and build on the architecture of what’s been growing into a fine relationship. We must not put the future of our engagement with the US and the other big powers in a black hole called Pakistan or the Kashmir problem. It may be useful to remember the other diplomatic absurdity we hated as much as America’s hyphenated South Asia policy, the zero sum game.
How can we now reduce our own relationship with the US to a zero sum game, howsoever justified our anger, irritation and disappointment might be?