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Saturday, July 21, 2001

Pakistan outmanuevered India

NEW DELHI -- Behind the blame game over the collapse of the India-Pakistan summit in Agra, a harsh reality faces New Delhi. The expectations and calculations that prompted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to make a dramatic U-turn in his Pakistan policy and invite Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf proved to be wrong. He overestimated several factors and underrated some others. He now needs to examine why he went wrong and recalibrate his policy.

The United States also got it wrong. It led India up the summit path without a full and realistic understanding of Musharraf's political constrictions, as opposed to his rhetorical readiness, to make a leap forward. Maybe Washington's aim was merely to get India and Pakistan back at the negotiating table. But the failure to accurately assess ground realities has made even the objective of ensuring a sustained, multifaceted dialogue more difficult.

The summit meeting foundered not on differences over intricate elements of any breakthrough in the works, but on the same old conceptual divergence on how to proceed toward mending bilateral relations. When India made its famous somersault on Pakistan policy in late May, it obviously did not anticipate that the summit would get mired in the old, trite, abstract questions or that it would get beaten at its own game.

From the time Vajpayee invited Musharraf to "walk the high road" with him, the economically ailing and politically isolated Pakistan virtually hijacked the Indian initiative, milking it to improve its image, build international legitimacy for its military regime and refocus attention on Kashmir.

Musharraf, a commando by training, brought that style and substance with him to India. He dominated the media side of the summit, tried to get the better of India in the negotiations and, when India did not wilt under his commando-type tactics, returned home triumphantly, having rebuffed even an anodyne joint statement. He wanted a joint statement only on his terms, as he did not want to meet the fate of Pakistani rulers who set in motion a process for their ouster after signing peace agreements with India.

Risk, stealth and surprise are essential to a commando, and Musharraf personifies those qualities. The Pervez Musharraf Breakfast Show, televised in the middle of the summit, was the work of a commando mind. That his guests at the breakfast were unaware of what the live telecast in what was supposed to be an off-the-record discussion was immaterial to Musharraf because ethics have no place in commando tactics.

In extending his invitation, Vajpayee should not have expected Musharraf to play by the rules of diplomacy. In the absence of such an expectation, the disbelief and bitterness over Musharraf's presummit conduct and the manner in which he negotiated through the media while in India could have been avoided.

Musharraf, who in 1971 was training Naga insurgents from India in the Chittagong hills, belongs to a tribe of Pakistani army officers who served in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and are sworn to avenge the dismemberment of their country. Musharraf's subsequent role in Sikh militancy, Kashmir terrorism, the 1999 Kargil war and the most recent Indian Airlines hijacking has to be seen against that background.

Agra was testament to how the underrated Musharraf outmaneuvered and outfoxed India by blending diplomacy and commando tactics. New Delhi will not admit it, but it has been acutely embarrassed by the way its initiative was handily used by Musharraf to seize the communications high ground and present himself as reasonable and the Indian side as inflexible.

More broadly, the Agra summit constitutes a serious setback to New Delhi's ability to carry on pursuing peace initiatives with Pakistan. Vajpayee tried sincerely at Lahore in 1999 and now at Agra to build a new era of peace and cooperation on the subcontinent. For a prime minister in the twilight of his career, Agra was virtually a last-ditch effort to fashion a foreign-policy legacy on the ruins of his earlier initiatives.

Agra is also testament to how abrupt, personality-driven changes in foreign policy that catch establishment professionals by surprise can backfire. While a new era of cooperative relations on the subcontinent will greatly aid India's interests and ambitions, it can hardly be ushered in through a big, blind gamble.

Any scheme to resume talks with Pakistan should have been structured in a step-by-step framework, with a summit meeting being offered by India as a reward for flexibility and joint work at lower levels. However, by conceding a summit without even testing the waters, India not only squandered leverage, it also generated misperceptions in Pakistan that it was exhausted from battling the Pakistani-sponsored jihad, or Islamic holy war, in Kashmir.

The paradox is that despite a failing economy, Pakistan has strengthened its only leverage over India -- its ability to bleed its rival by sending arms and extremists into Kashmir. That is Islamabad's most powerful weapon against India. As its economic and military disparity with India widens, Pakistan will need that weapon even more. At Agra, it refused to allow even a theoretical linkage to be drawn between the Kashmir issue and cross-border terrorism.

With everything grist to his mill, Musharraf has returned home stronger, having delivered his message directly to Indians and been accorded legitimacy by New Delhi. Clearly, India miscalculated that Musharraf, chastened by his Kargil war experience and burdened by a collapsing Pakistani economy, was ready to be an Anwar Sadat and cut a historic peace deal. Agra showed he was not ready even to move ahead.

India made three miscalculations: It did not take sufficient account of Musharraf's domestic constraints; it overrated external influences on him; and it misjudged his willingness to turn a new leaf. Having failed to make peace with a democratically governed Pakistan, Vajpayee this summer turned to that country's most powerful institution, the military. The Pakistan military, however, has little incentive to seek lasting peace with India as that will greatly erode its power base and ability to corner a sizable chunk of national resources.

A summit designed to help India and Pakistan get over their bitter past and get on with building a cooperative future has shown that the past still matters more. It will take another couple of generations before the two nations get over the rancor of the subcontinent's partition and learn to peacefully coexist. Until then, the only predictable pattern is that the two rivals' underlying hostility toward each other will define the scope and extent of their engagement.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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