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India, Pakistan talk -- to catch America's eye

By M K Bhadrakumar
February 26, 2010 13:46 IST
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Amidst much grandstanding, the India-Pakistan 'dialogue' got off to a start in New Delhi on Thursday -- albeit on somewhat of a bumpy start.

No breakthrough in their frosty ties was expected, nor was one achieved. The United States, which brokered the structured talks at the foreign ministry-level, should heave a sigh of relief that the ball has been set rolling in a seamless game after a 14-month hiatus.

The approach of the Indian and Pakistani sides to the talks presents a study in contrast although both saw the other as desperately keen to have the dialogue resume.

The Indians always held the 'dialogue' as their trump card to force Pakistan to be responsive to their demand that Islamabad curb the activities of terrorist groups.

Islamabad on its part, having placed itself brilliantly well vis-a-vis the US to seek leverage out of its 'strategic assets' -- the Taliban -- in the endgame in Afghanistan, presumed that India 'panicked' at the prospect of regional isolation.

Neither assumption is valid. New Delhi ought to realise that despite its stubborn refusal to dialogue, Islamabad parried its demand to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure with links to the Pakistani security establishment that bleeds India. Indeed, indications are that Pakistani envisages continued use of terrorism as state policy vis-a-vis India.

Equally, Islamabad is naïve to think New Delhi will roll over and accept a Taliban regime in Kabul. Indeed, India has several big factors of advantage insofar as its economy that is robustly coasting toward a 9 percent growth rate, and it isn't a basket case needing constant infusion of American aid, apart from enjoying the political stability that comes with civilian supremacy in government.

The Indians utilised the talks on Thursday to push the issue of terrorism to the centrestage. The Indian brief seems to have been hard as nail with New Delhi handing over three dossiers listing Pakistan-based terrorists, while its projection in the run-up to the talks was smooth as silk, presenting itself as reasonable and open to exchanges regarding the range of issues in bilateral ties.

The Pakistani side apparently did not expect India to name a senior serving Pakistani military official as a terrorist. Given the political realities in Pakistan with the military calling the shots, Delhi's allegation almost instinctively forced the suave Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who was leading the visiting delegation and is well regarded in Delhi, to launch an uncharacteristic 90-minute televised diatribe against India at a press conference held in the Pakistani chancery.

How the Indian allegation regarding the Pakistani military officer pans out remains to be seen since it constitutes a virtual finger-pointing at the Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani as the real mastermind of terrorism in the subcontinent.

We may expect storms in the days ahead and how big is the American umbrella to ferry home the Indians and the Pakistanis in the event of a sudden downpour becomes an element in the Barack Obama administration's checklist, alongside the attendant woes of the war in Afghanistan.

The audacity of Obama's hope is simply stunning -- pick up the Pakistani military as its and North Atlantic Treaty Organistaion's key ally in the fulfillment of the strategy toward Afghanistan and Central Asia, while stringing Delhi along as its 'strategic partner' in the global vistas of the 21st century where the US encounters rising China and resurgent Russia.

As the year progresses, excitement will rise as a visit by Obama to India is on the cards. Obama faces an acute dilemma. He desperately needs the Pakistani military to bring the Taliban in from the cold to the negotiating table without which the bleeding of the US' Afghan wound won't stop, and time is short.

The Pakistani military senses that Obama's need is desperate and it knows it is immensely experienced in serving Washington's interests in the Hindu Kush -- but for a price.

The Pakistani wish list is demanding. The Pakistani military expects to be built up by Washington to a near parity in conventional strength with its Indian adversary; it also deserves a nuclear deal similar to what the George W Bush administration granted India; it cannot and will not accept any thinking in Washington that attributes a role to India as regional superpower; and, it expects a US mediatory role to pressure India to settle the Kashmir dispute.

In essence, Pakistan seeks a strategic relationship with the US that duly recognises its legitimate claim as a regional power that goes beyond the imperatives of the Afghan war or the NATO's enlargement plans in Central Asia.

New Delhi -- and indeed other regional powers -- will be keenly watching how far Obama bends to accommodate Pakistan. Meanwhile, it is beginning a series of consultations with other key players with stakes in Obama's regional policies.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna is scheduled to visit Beijing; Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is due to visit Delhi in March; and a round of ministerial consultation with Iran may come up in May.

However, Delhi may see no real need to seek an entente cordiale with third parties in order to catch Obama's eye. India's ties with the US are steadily deepening and unlike in the case with Pakistan, the strategic partnership with the US goes down extremely well with the Indian elites and public opinion.

It cannot be lost on Washington that India is indeed one of the few 'natural allies' left on the planet for the US and unlike the case with Pakistan, Delhi promises a durable relationship of intrinsic worth.

Why should the US, therefore, kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Delhi expects Washington not to tread on India's core interests and vital concerns and estimates that a relationship of mutual trust and global partnership isn't too much to ask for.

The US has seldom been so influential in the subcontinent. A parallel can be drawn with the early sixties in the downstream of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.

In fact, the parallel is striking. Then too, Chinese 'communist expansionism' was the core US agenda and Washington counted on keeping both India and Pakistan as its allies and perhaps made its most direct intervention to settle the Kashmir dispute, so that its geo-strategy could work.

However, as the experienced former US ambassador Howard Schaffer wrote in a recent book, at a certain point the John F Kennedy administration saw the danger of annoying India by pressuring it on Kashmir lest Delhi drifted toward Beijing for a normalisation of relations.

But historical analogies apart, the nascent India-Pakistan dialogue process that commenced in New Delhi on Thursday will likely continue. It seems reasonable to estimate that despite the hardliners in both countries, New Delhi and Islamabad would realiae the usefulness of an incremental dialogue process.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, notably, is an ardent advocate of transformation of the adversarial India-Pakistan relationship on lines similar to the historic French-German concord of the 1950s.

But there is also some disarray insofar as the Indian security establishment doesn't seem to share his vision and often gives into silly pastimes of laying booby traps on the path of India-Pakistan normalisation.

The India-Pakistan temper tantrums can be notoriously deceptive. Indeed, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao revealed that Bashir invited her to visit Islamabad for the next round of talks. Will they schedule one in late March or early April? Besides, back channel contacts seem to be available as well.

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan are bound to come across each other on April 28-29 at the summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu.

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M K Bhadrakumar