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Cut out the middlemen

The civilian government in Pakistan is a joke. So with whom does India do business? Amit Baruah writes.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2009 10:37 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times

‘It looks like a students’ union is running Pakistan,’ a friend in Islamabad told me over the phone the other day. It wasn’t a flippant comment. He was dead serious. Between the two of them (and ably aided by the military establishment), President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have reduced governance to a joke.

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani was ‘sacked’ for telling the media that Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist, was a Pakistani. Okay, so he was sacked. But actually, as the Pakistani media reported, he is yet to be removed from the job formally. Durrani may have the support of the Pakistani President, but where does it leave the Pakistani State? Nowhere.

In the wake of 26/11, a hoax call was made to Zardari, ostensibly by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, threatening Pakistan with dire consequences. Mukherjee made no such call. But Zardari was scared out of his skin by Pakistan’s intelligence establishment, which wanted to ensure that Zardari abandoned his pro-India policies double-quick. And the ruse worked. Zardari called many capitals across the world in a bid to secure support against India’s imminent aggression after the hoax call.

Remember that before 26/11 punctured relations with New Delhi, Zardari was making comments on the lines of India never being a threat to Pakistan and that Islamabad wouldn’t be the first country to use nuclear weapons. Army chief Parvez Kayani wanted all this pro-India sentiment put down, as did the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, which must have viewed with alarm the extent of Zardari’s pro-India comments.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can only wish that Zardari had been more restrained in his choice of words. But that’s now a peripheral issue. The central question today is: how does India deal with Pakistan’s weakest ‘civilian’ government ever? Who should one believe when it comes to Pakistan’s post-Mumbai actions? It’s a confusing scenario in which a divided civilian leadership seems to be bumbling along. At a time of tension with New Delhi, no one in Pakistan, including the civilian leadership, can survive by being soft on India.

After ensuring Pervez Musharraf’s ouster from the presidency in 2007, the Pakistani army has quickly distanced itself from its last chief. In fact, the country’s sole institution that actually functions is once again poised to play the role of ‘saviour-from-India’ that it has played so well. Nothing unites Pakistan more than a heavy dose of ‘anti-India’ emotion.

It looks as if Gilani is being propped up by the army to take on Zardari, who after all the tall promises of returning Pakistan to democracy, has taken on the role of an executive president, much like Musharraf. This is unconstitutional. But when has that ever bothered Pakistan’s long line of rulers, be they uniformed or otherwise? For India, which has no direct access to Kayani, the emergence of three (or two-and-a-half) power centres in Pakistan is ominous. Judging who is doing what, or even the authority of public statements, is a big job in itself.

It’s easy to say that India will deal with the government of the day. But unlike Western nations that talk of strengthening democracy in Pakistan and continue dealing with the generals to get their job done, New Delhi has no direct channel to Kayani. In the event of hostilities between India and Pakistan, the civilian leadership will be irrelevant. Only the army will matter. “For Pakistan, there is no concept of ‘limited war’. Any war with India is seen as a total war for survival. It risks losing everything the moment India crosses its border… As the battles escalate, India’s numerical and weapon superiority will become critical. If no external intervention takes place quickly, Pakistan will then be left with the ‘poison pill’ defence of its nuclear weapons,” argued Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, in The Huffington Post recently.

We have moved away from the path of war-mongering. But dealing with the problem of Pakistan is likely to occupy India full-time. A middle path between resorting to military strikes and no-business-as-usual is the only option open to India.

Across the board, political opinion in India wants Pakistan to deliver. Purge the country of jihadi terrorists who have realised that the rest of India is a far better target than Kashmir. India can no longer bear the costs of an imperfect State structure in Pakistan. If Pakistan wants business as usual, then it must prosecute and convict all those behind 26/11. And nip any more terrorist strikes on India in the bud.

First Published: Jan 21, 2009 10:27 IST