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The march of folly

Mumbai has slipped into the background and the dynamic of Indo-Pak confrontation — something with which both countries are all too familiar — has taken over, writes Ayaz Amir.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2008 01:16 IST
Ayaz Amir

The mood here is not jingoistic and there is no beating of the drums of war. But it is grim all the same with some army units being pulled out from the western marches for deployment on the eastern front and the military in a state of “high alert”.

Mumbai has slipped into the background and the dynamic of Indo-Pak confrontation — something with which both countries are all too familiar — has taken over. Apart from the usual suspects mouthing the usual clichés about giving India a “mouth-breaking response” (moon torh jawab) few Pakistanis are comfortable with the heightened tension between the two countries or the drift towards something akin to a state of war.

But the dynamic once started creates its own momentum. Thus despite everything tension is growing and armed forces on both sides are preparing for the worst. Does this suit anyone, expect al Qaeda? But oblivious to the larger picture India and Pakistan are setting out on the familiar terrain of confrontation. The Americans can’t be pleased and understandably are counselling restraint. But the march of folly continues.

At least this is what it looks like on this side of the border. In Pakistani eyes, and they could be wrong, chief among Indian jingoists has been Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee with his persistent talk about all options on the table including some kind of armed response. Pakistan army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, was replying to him that in case of any kind of strike Pakistan’s response would come in minutes. The rhetoric could have become more heated if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had not stepped into the breach by declaring that the issue was not war but terrorism.

Whatever the sentiment on the other side, the feeling in Pakistan is that India is playing a clever game, using the moment to isolate Pakistan and build international opinion against it. There is also the feeling that India is trying to bully Pakistan, an impression heightened by the tone of Indian statements after Mumbai.

This is why President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani have come in for sharp criticism for not standing up more robustly to Indian pressure. Their initial response to Indian accusations of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba complicity in the Mumbai attacks was considered weak and fumbling and did not go down well with public opinion. If since then there has been a change of tone from Pakistan’s side — as highlighted by Gen Kayani’s statement — it has been dictated by the necessity of standing up to perceived Indian pressure.

Mercifully, there has been no rush to war in the Pakistani media with most analysts and even television anchors striking a sober note. Which is not what can be said of sections of the India media, especially some television channels, which give the impression that nothing short of all-out war would satisfy their craving for sensationalism.

The debate in the National Assembly on national security was also remarkable for its sobriety. The need was stressed for a firm but responsible stance towards India. There was little of the usual sabre-rattling at which both Indians and Pakistanis can so easily excel.

India perhaps could do well to take a leaf out of America’s book. The US has also been engaging with Pakistan and urging it to take firm action against so-called jihadi groups. But it has been doing so behind the scenes without mounting the housetops. The approach adopted by India — perhaps because it is new at this game — is to speak in a public manner, in a tone most Pakistanis find threatening and therefore offensive, which far from serving any useful purpose merely puts Pakistani backs up.

Few people have any doubts in their minds that the focus should be on terrorism and its sources. But what Mumbai and its aftermath have done is to shift the focus from regional terrorism onto the familiar plane of Indo-Pak confrontation. Who benefits from this? Not the US, not India, not Pakistan. But it suits al Qaeda.

There is an urgent need to turn down the rhetoric. No one wants war but the present drift is dangerous. Both countries share a history of unwanted wars. We can do without another exercise in futility.