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November 4, 2009

After Sharm-el-Sheikh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s giveaway at Sharm-el-Sheikh enables Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex to distract attention from the Talibanisation of the Pakistani state and mobilise the people against that old external enemy, India. It allows the military establishment to cite the India threat to avoid committing troops for the United States-led war against the Taliban. And also — now that the separatism in Jammu & Kashmir is petering out — to use Balochistan as a pretext to provide fresh justification for its longstanding strategy of using terrorism to contain India.

In addition to this, it is quite likely that Pakistani officials and commentators will use Indian meddling to counter and mitigate charges of their country being a source of international terrorism. Debating points and PR value apart, this won’t make a material difference: to the extent that Pakistani terrorists threaten the international community while Baloch militants only threaten Pakistan, the rest of the world is unlikely to take too much notice.

It is also likely that Balochistan will figure on the bilateral diplomatic agenda—but it is unclear how Pakistan wishes to benefit from it. Because if Pakistan takes the position of “you stop hitting us in Balochistan and we’ll stop hitting you in Kashmir and elsewhere”, India could well say, “OK, that’s a deal.” Such a move is understandable only if the Pakistani authorities want to wind down the anti-India jihad and need a face-saving deal to sell to their own population. Since the chances of this happening are slimmer than that of snow in Chennai, it is unlikely that Pakistan will want to propose such a deal in the bilateral dialogue.

While the utility of bringing up Balochistan in the joint-statement is limited from this perspective, it is just what Pakistani government needs to tar Baloch nationalism in the eyes of the its public, and use it to carry on the ongoing, bloody repression in the province.

So how should India deal with the outcome of Sharm-el-Sheikh insofar as it concerns Balochistan? First, there is no need for the Indian government to be defensive, apologetic or even too fastidious in trying to correct Pakistani allegations that it is carrying out covert operations in Balochistan. It should be fair game to respond to a proxy war by opening up another front and going on the offensive. If Pakistan protests too much, it can be told that its allegations are baseless, asked to submit evidence and made to do the very things it asks of India.

Second, since it was Yousuf Raza Gilani who presented information on threats in Balochistan, it is only natural for the Indian government to begin to take official positions on the developments there. To the extent that the ferment in Balochistan is due to colonial exploitation, denial and violation of human rights, India should impress upon its dialogue partner the need to address the genuine grievances of the Baloch people. It is time for the Indian media to read up on Balochistan matters, for think-tanks to arrange workshops and seminars on the subject, and for civil society to take greater interest in what happens there. All this might sound sarcastic, but it is not. Surely, unless India does all this, how can it promote its own interests in “a stable, democratic Islamic Republic of Pakistan”?

In the parliamentary debate on Sharm-el-Sheikh summit Dr Singh stood his ground, and didn’t make use of the lifelines that were created for him by the foreign ministry.

Whether he intended it or not, Dr Singh has made himself personally vulnerable. Whether he intended it or not, Sharm-el-Sheikh is a gamble: if there is another Pakistan-originated terrorist attack during his tenure, he will be thrown to the dogs by his own party; if there isn’t one, as the phrase goes, Singh is King. Since the only people who can prevent a Pakistan-originated terrorist attack are the powers that be in Pakistan—whether it is Asif Ali Zardari, Mr Gilani or the military-jihadi complex—Dr Singh’s fate is effectively in the hands of
his Pakistani adversaries. Another terrorist attack during the UPA government’s second innings will certainly hurt India; but it will abruptly end Dr Singh’s prime ministerial career.

Just what will Messrs Zardari, Gilani and Kayani do when they realise that they have Dr Singh by the jugular? In addition to using the Balochistan reference to obfuscate their culpability in the Talibanisation of Pakistani society, they will first realise that they suddenly have more than just ‘mutual interdependency’ without even having to build a gas pipeline and then blackmail India over it.

Second, they can—with genuine or faux sincerity— suggest that unless India makes concessions over Jammu & Kashmir and a number of other bilateral issues, it will be very hard to rein in the jihadis. Dr Singh’s gamble leaves him ever more vulnerable to this old blackmail.It does not matter if Messrs Zardari and Gilani can or cannot actually do anything about the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and it does not matter if they do anything about it or not—they will still be able to ask India to make progress on the composite dialogue to keep the ‘peace process’ moving.

Third, should another terrorist attack occur, Messrs Zardari and Gilani can first deny, then offer to investigate, then admit that it originated in Pakistan. In New Delhi, like they sacked the incompetent Shivraj Patil after too much damage had already occurred, the Congress Party might be compelled to seek Dr Singh’s resignation.

The only way Singh can be King is when there is no major terrorist attack. Only major concessions by India might prevent those attacks from happening.


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