Friday, November 9, 2007

India's Pakistan dilemma

India's Pakistan dilemma

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency in his country has been strongly criticised around the world.

But one country has been ultra-cautious and circumspect in its reaction - long-time regional rival, India.

In its first reaction India spoke of its regret at events in Pakistan.

Since then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said he is watching the situation and hoping that the "process of democratisation can begin".

Kashmir worries

India's diplomatic reticence masks the overwhelming concern in its establishment about developments across the border.

The situation along the border is also much calmer since a ceasefire came into place in 2003

Delhi has a very high stake in the political and security situation in Pakistan stabilising as soon as possible. The future of a tentative peace process that has been under way for nearly four years depends on this.

But increasingly, it is alarmed at the intensity of the confrontation between the Pakistani military and militants in the volatile tribal areas.

Historically some of the militant groups in Pakistan have had links with militants fighting Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In the past few years the level of violence in Kashmir has come down and India is keen to keep a lid on it.

But there's a growing perception here that the militants are gaining some ground in Pakistan, a situation which has huge potential consequences for India.

Gen Musharraf's crackdown on the militants has meant that support for the Kashmiri groups has dried up.

It has meant that India can even consider decreasing the number of soldiers it has stationed in Kashmir, although this is a step it has not yet taken.

The situation along the border is also much calmer since a ceasefire came into place in 2003.

But all that could well change if the situation in Pakistan is fluid or if there is a weakening of the political leadership.

Not surprisingly, one of the first actions that India took after the emergency was declared was to quietly place its border guards on alert.

Who to back?

There is also some confusion in India as to who it should back in the crisis. Should it come out in support of the opposition, in particular Benazir Bhutto?

Or should it take Washington's lead and tacitly continue supporting Gen Musharraf.

One of the main reasons for India's dilemma stems from the fact that relations between the two neighbours have improved considerably in the years that the general has been in power.

Although a strong section of the Indian establishment is distrustful of the Pakistani military, there is an overwhelming sense that peace can only be achieved with the military on board.

And with Gen Musharraf wearing two hats - as president and as chief of the army - India's job has been made somewhat simpler. It knows who it's dealing with.

Until now, that is.

With pressure growing on the president and a series of public protests, Delhi does not want to be wrong-footed if there is a change of guard.

So it watched with interest as Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan after her years abroad.

When her convoy was attacked in the deadly Karachi blasts, India was swift to register its concern and sympathy.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the governing Congress Party, and opposition leader LK Advani all called her personally to convey their wishes.

In a message sent to her through India's envoy in Islamabad and released to the press, Delhi said:

"We are relieved that you are unhurt. Terrorism is a common challenge to all of us in South Asia. We look forward to working with you to defeat terrorism in all its forms."

The statement raised some eyebrows in India especially as Ms Bhutto does not hold any elected position - some have taken it to mean that Delhi is tacitly supporting the former prime minister in her quest to return to power.

But the more likely explanation is that India is keeping all its options open in the event of regime change in Pakistan.

Media role

Privately, Indian officials say they want to stay out of the whole situation.

Mostly this is a recognition of the fact that India has little leverage in Pakistan.

In fact, many here feel that India will only complicate matters by getting involved.

"For the last few years, the internal discussion in Pakistan has been more focused on its western borders than on the eastern one and blaming India," says defence analyst Uday Bhaskar.

At the same time, ordinary Indians have been following the situation in Pakistan a lot more closely than they have in the past.

When the state of emergency was declared, Indian private television stations had wall-to-wall coverage of the situation in Pakistan - by switching over to their Pakistani counterparts.

So private Pakistani television stations were off the air in their own country, as part of the emergency, but were available in India and broadcast on satellite television networks there.

Perhaps for the first time, Indians were experiencing events in Pakistan through Pakistani eyes.


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