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There’s a method to their madness

When our prime ministers talk to Pakistan, they act like statesmen. They are reasonable and flexible. When Pakistanis talk to us, it is an entirely different story, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 13, 2009 11:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Most of us forget nearly everything we learned in university within months of graduating. I doubt if I am an exception. But there’s one particular Politics tutorial that comes back to haunt me again and again each time Pakistan is discussed.

I was at university during the Cold War so all dons were slightly obsessed with the way in which the rivalry between Nato and the Soviet bloc would play out. One of them told us that he was an admirer of Henry Kissinger’s strategic thinking.

In those days, we were taught the doctrine of MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction. The US and the Soviets both had so many nuclear weapons that each could easily destroy the other. Any Russian leader or American president who ordered a nuclear strike knew that he was, in effect, ordering the destruction of his own country. The other side would retaliate with so much force that the original attacker’s country would be destroyed.

If neither side could afford to go to war — because the nuclear destruction that followed would devastate both countries — then the threat of war could not be used ‘as a negotiating tool’. After all, only a madman would start a nuclear war that would lead to total destruction.

Kissinger’s bright idea, my don explained, had been to convince the Russians that President Richard Nixon was unstable. He drank late into the night, flew into rages, went down on his knees in the Oval Office to ask Jesus for instructions. In other words, Nixon was a madman.

The moment one of the players in this game of MAD is mad or unstable, then the threat of war suddenly becomes a negotiating ploy again. Who knows, Kissinger would tell the Russians, if you provoke this mad Nixon, he might just press the nuclear button after he has had too much to drink!

The strategy had worked, my don said. And he was now convinced that the Cold War would not be ended by visionary statesmen but by tacticians who pretended to be mad for strategic advantage.

Can it be a coincidence that when the West finally won the Cold War, it was after eight years of sabre-rattling Ronald Reagan who most liberal commentators (and the Russians) regarded as a foolish, unstable, reactionary, war-monger?

I thought back again to this Madman theory of politics on the first anniversary of 26/11 as I witnessed the sorry spectacle of Pakistani commentators and defence experts appearing on Indian TV to deny all responsibility for those monstrous attacks. I first thought: are these people mad?

Then, remnants of my education kicked in. Oh my God, I said to myself. They are using the Madman theory of politics!

Look at it this way. When our prime ministers (whether it is Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh) talk to Pakistan, they act like statesmen. They are reasonable, flexible and willing to go the extra mile. When Pakistanis talk to us, it is an entirely different story.

Whoever we talk to, always plays the Kissinger role and warns us that there is a mad Nixon-like figure hovering in the background, who could go off the handle at any time. Even as we talked peace to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan was sending militants into Kashmir. Years later, when I asked Benazir about it, she said: what could I do? It was the ISI. They don’t listen to us.

Then, when Vajpayee went to Lahore and held hands with Nawaz Sharif, the photo-ops were followed by the invasion of Kargil. What a tragedy but there’s nothing I can do, said Sharif. The army acts on its own. They are all mad!

Then, when General Musharraf turned up in Agra, I asked him how we could trust him after what he had done in Kargil. He denied the army’s involvement. There was a mujahideen factor, he said. The Pakistani army could not be blamed.

A year ago, Asif Zardari talked peace at the HT Leadership Summit. He offered a hand of friendship, he said. Weeks later, 26/11 happened. Zardari’s explanation: he wanted peace but what could he do? There were powerful Islamic groups that he had no control over. And they were lunatics and fanatics.

And so on. Nobody India speaks to wants war or terror. But there is always some uncontrollable force that does and, sure enough, war and terror follow.

Because the Pakistanis maintain a careful ambiguity about where power actually resides within their society, they are able to speak in many voices at the same time. Time after time, Indian leaders fall for this. Even as astute a tactician as Indira Gandhi bought Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s claim that he would not include the acceptance of the Line of Control in Kashmir as the international border in the Simla Agreement because “public opinion in Pakistan is so strong that I will be lynched when I go back”. Now Pakistan denies Bhutto ever agreed to this.

Can you imagine Indian leaders behaving like this? Can you conceive of Vajpayee saying “I know I promised peace but my generals attacked you anyway”? (As Sharif did after Kargil.) Can you conceive of Manmohan saying “I want to talk peace but the Hindu fundamentalists will kill me if I appear too reasonable”?

Because we’re a stable nation with a single centre of democratic authority, we talk with one voice. And each time, that works against us.

Pakistan has perfected the Madman theory so completely that even the Americans have now been taken in. Islamabad says: “If you don’t give us billions of dollars and lots of arms and extract some concessions from India, then our country will self-destruct and you will have instability and Islamic extremism in the region.” And the US gives in.

Within the Indian intelligentsia, Pakistan uses a variation of the same argument: if you don’t do as we say, then our country will self-destruct.

So gullible Indian intellectuals say things like “It is our job to save Pakistan.” Or even, “A strong and stable Pakistan is in India’s best interests.” (Is it? Why? So it can send more terrorists here and keep shifting the blame? Would India really be worse off if Sindh seceded? If Baluchistan revolted?)

If history has taught us anything, it is this: talking peace with Pakistan gets us nowhere. Every peace talk is followed by war or terror. About the only time in recent memory when we have had a degree of peace was between 1972 and 1989. And how did we achieve nearly two decades of peace? By winning the Bangladesh war.

In this day and age, war may not be possible. But, let’s be realistic: peace is not possible either. It’s time to stop acting like statesmen when we are dealing with cunning madmen. There’s only one language that works in these situations.

And that, sadly enough, is the language of strength.

The views expressed by the author are personal