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Thursday, May 31, 2001

India reverses course again

DELHI -- With its continuing "war of a thousand cuts" against India, military-ruled Pakistan poses the single biggest challenge to Indian foreign policy. Yet Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has changed course on Pakistan often in the past three years. The unending policy dance, with its monkey-like somersaults, has left the Indian public dazed.

Until the morning of May 23, India's policy was that it wouldn't even play cricket with Pakistan. By that evening the policy had changed so completely that India was ready to role out the red carpet to welcome Pakistan's dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for talks without preconditions. There was not even a cursory attempt to explain the rationale behind this 180-degree turnabout.

Consistency may not be a virtue in politics but it is an essential element in foreign policy. Abrupt twists and turns are detrimental to foreign-policy credibility. A nation whose policy commitments mean nothing can never secure international respect or be taken seriously.

Try rationalizing the following somersaults:

First came Indian statements after the 1998 nuclear tests about new geopolitical realities, including those dealing with Kashmir. Then came a 180-degree turn in which Vajpayee was smitten by the peace bug and got invited to Pakistan by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Such was his fervor that the prime minister surprised Sharif with a hug after crossing the border by bus.

This was followed by Pakistan's invasion of Kargil, with Vajpayee crying that he was taken for a ride by the same foe he had visited with such fanfare. Vajpayee pledged that there would be no talks and cut off all links with Pakistan. He also declared "zero tolerance" for terrorism and promised to break the back of Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups.

Before long, however, his government began holding secret talks with Pakistan-backed Kashmiri militant groups. A botched ceasefire with one such group, the Hizbul Mujahedin, did not deter Vajpayee from surprising everyone last November by declaring a unilateral ceasefire against all Pakistan-sponsored terrorist outfits.

For six months, his government regularly said that the ceasefire was working, although official casualty figures told a different story. Then last week the pendulum again swung to the other end: The ceasefire was off and Vajpayee had invited the mastermind of the Kargil invasion to walk the "high road with us."

Instead of countering Islamabad's tricks, Vajpayee continues to monkey with India's Pakistan policy. In the absence of a near-term or long-term strategy to tackle Pakistan's mischief, New Delhi has taken to periodically pulling off something dramatic.

The latest turnabout has been driven more by narrow tactical considerations than by a larger strategy, although the move is as clever as a barrel full of monkeys. In inviting the Pakistani leader for direct talks while simultaneously ending the ceasefire, India has sought to present itself both as tough against terrorism and conciliatory toward Pakistan. Its invitation not only calls Musharraf's bluff, but also puts him in a difficult situation with the Islamists within and outside his junta who oppose dialogue. Further, India shows itself internationally as a reasonable, responsible power.

The dual initiative, however, is bereft of a larger vision. India can handle Pakistan only through a calibrated, carrot-and-stick approach that rewards good behavior and imposes penalties for errant or belligerent behavior. The invitation to Musharraf rewards unrepentant, unchanged bad behavior. Vajpayee ignored even U.S. President George W. Bush's advice that Pakistan should create an atmosphere conducive for dialogue.

Vajpayee has done exceptionally well in raising India's international profile. His team has dexterously handled the dual tasks of expanding Indo-U.S. cooperation and maintaining close strategic ties with Moscow. It has, however, not done well with immediate neighbors, as exemplified by its poor handling of the recent Bangladeshi killings of 16 Indian border troops. The China-Pakistan-Myanmar nexus has grown stronger as India's China policy continues to seek engagement without results.

The lack of a clear strategy against Pakistan costs India dearly. In the three years that Vajpayee has been in office, India has faced one Pakistani invasion, one Pakistan-engineered hijacking (with the terrorists still harbored in Pakistan by Musharraf) and greater Pakistani covert activity in India's vulnerable northeast, which borders Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Under Vajpayee, Pakistan-backed terrorism has metamorphosed from a hit-and-run campaign to direct assaults on security camps.

By moving from a policy that sought Pakistan's international isolation as a terrorist state to one that now invites Musharraf for talks, Vajpayee has come full circle. He is also on the brink of restarting the Lahore peace process -- incongruously enough, with the general who detests the 1999 Lahore Declaration and its "vision of peace."

India has to prepare for the summit with Musharraf with realistic, hardheaded calculations. Musharraf has little political room for maneuver. Forced to constantly look over his shoulder at the other generals in his junta, his hold on power remains tenuous. Vajpayee, too, has little room for major concessions as he heads a damaged government and has little to show in combating terrorism.

India will not be able to credibly return to its earlier position of seeking to isolate Pakistan even if the summit yields no progress. The smart tactic in inviting Musharraf could backfire if India does not play its cards well. In fact, by agreeing to host Musharraf, India has already begun the process of international legitimization of the military regime in Islamabad. Tactics without strategy are always perilous.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at New Delhi's independent Center for Policy Research, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.

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