The Relevance of Détente

After the visits of Richard Armitage and Donald Rumsfeld, which formalised the commitments made by Islamabad and New Delhi to their American mediators or “facilitators”, the threat of overt war has diminished in South Asia – although it has by no means disappeared. A new triumphalism is now discernible in parts of political India, and a pall of gloom has descended over sections of Pakistan’s strategic community.

In India, PM Vajpayee, no less, has declared a “significant victory” over Pakistan “without going to war”. In an interview to a right-wing Hindi daily, he says this became possible because the country “got ready” for war, “the army … was waiting for instructions … and India was prepared for nuclear war.”

Since then, President Musharraf has boasted that it is Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear weapons “together” that “deterred” India’s aggression. These are both astoundingly irresponsible statements, which demand a separate discussion. Yet, they underscore the case for nuclear restraint and risk-reduction in South Asia. However, to start with, it is relevant to take a look at some of the comments made on the present situation from within Pakistan and India.

A number of Pakistani analysts have concluded that the Armitage-Rumsfeld visits marked a “decisive” American tilt in favour of India and that Pakistan capitulated to US pressure instead of defying America and driving a hard bargain with it. Some writers have convinced themselves that Musharraf is finally deserting/betraying the Kashmir cause just as recklessly and wrongly as he turned against the Taliban last September.

Musharraf’s “capitulation” is attributed to Pakistan’s internal “weakness”, which alone, it is said, allowed India to dictate to it a pattern of behaviour, which it could not do even when Kashmir’s “freedom struggle” was at its “peak”.

All these propositions are open to question. There has certainly been a US tilt in India’s favour (which for me is no cause for celebration). But this “tilt” well predates last month or year. It goes back to the year 2000, and represents a delayed or overdue shift or “adjustment” in US’ South Asia policy after the end of Cold War, and other developments which occurred around Clinton’s 2000 visit, including a rise in non-resident Indians’ profile in the US due to the software boom.

September 11 impinged itself upon this context. It further strengthened the pro-India tilt and presented Pakistan with a major dilemma. Well before September, India’s leaders had already adopted a strong pro-American foreign policy orientation. They were beholden to Washington for their remarkably slavish support to the US’ aggressive unilateralism, reflected above all in Bush’s “missile defence” plans. After 9/11, they successfully trapped the US in its “anti-terrorism” rhetoric and linked America’s anti-Al-Qaeda goals to their own regional objectives.

Pervez Musharraf’s post-September 11 options were extremely limited. In fact, the choice was binary: fall in line or else… Musharraf did try to sequester his policy towards Al-Qaeda/Taliban from Kashmir when he told India to “lay off”. But by February, this looked less and less like a viable enterprise, not because the Kashmiri “cause” (of autonomy/azadi/secession) is unworthy, but because the world has increasingly begun to see Islamabad as substituting itself for the Kashmiris with armed force, often brutally and indiscriminately deployed.

In the event, especially after US forces began to get active on Pakistani soil, and terrorist attacks occurred in India in recent weeks (regardless of who instigated them), Musharraf’s options further narrowed. He came under growing pressure to stop supporting the Kashmiri “freedom-fighters” just as demonstratively, but not as ruthlessly, as happened with the Taliban earlier. The difference was, he was not being asked to actively join the fight against the Kashmiri jehadis.

If South Asia’s societies and political processes are ever to evolve in a healthy pluralist direction, they must be liberated from devious Machiavellian strategies – no matter how just the original cause for their formulation. If our ruling dispensations are not to be permanent hostages to the sleaziest and most ultra-conservative right-wing components of the state apparatus represented by cloak-and-dagger agencies and dirty-tricks departments, and if they are to democratise themselves, they must be free to pursue rational objectives in a relatively, clean, transparent fashion.

It’s hard to say if Musharraf – or Vajpayee – believes in such objectives or methods. But one hopes Musharraf will at least try to move in that direction – albeit under duress.

In India, there is a good deal of crowing about having “successfully” called Pakistan’s “bluff” and forced it to bend the knee through unrestrained military muscle-flexing at the border. Those who make this claim strenuously deny the plain truth: namely, it is not on account of fear of India’s military might, or out of a rational calculation to avoid nuclear conflict (which calculation, alas, many generals refuse), but because of America’s coercive mediation, that Islamabad changed its tune and committed itself to verifiably halting cross-border infiltration of militants into Kashmir.

What happened – and is happening – between India and Pakistan, and the US, falls logically and firmly within the dictionary meaning of “mediate” – “form connecting link between; be the medium for bringing about (result); intervene (between two persons) for purpose of reconciling them”, etc. India’s leaders bristle at the word, and the Americans duly humour them. But mediation is the unalloyed reality.

The point is, many Indians, including strategic “experts”, do not fully realise that the present mediation is not cost-free. It comes with strings attached. It could eventually extract a heavy price in policy too. India will have to put the Kashmir issue on the table. After all, India itself – rather, its present rulers – effectively internationalised the issue in May 1998 by linking nuclear weapons to it.

From the standpoint of secular, liberal-democratic Indians, the NDA’s triumphalism vis-a-vis Pakistan is inseparable from the BJP’s communal nationalism and its desperate need to whitewash the Gujarat carnage.

Of a piece with this is the NDA’s nomination – regrettably supported by the Congress too – of APJ Abdul Kalam for the presidency. Kalam, the RSS’ “poster-boy Muslim”, represents the opposite of true pluralist culture which India’s non-executive president is supposed to reflect and defend. The “Missile Man” symbolises militarism as nobody else does.

The new hubris on display in India can only promote rabid militarism and communalism and make another conflict with Pakistan likelier. But the need of the hour is detente, reconciliation and denuclearisation of the region. We shall soon see that this is not as romantic as it might seem.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.