A foe in need is a friend indeed

With elections not so far away in India and Nawaz Sharif embroiled in a series of domestic skirmishes, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s friend from Lahore could not have done the BJP and himself a bigger favour than opening the Kargil front


The Dilli–Lahore goodwill  bus had been cruising  along comfortably — in the right direction if not at the desired speed. The reception which the most important passenger on that peace route — Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — received in February during his brief journey across the Wagah, and the response the visiting Pakistani cricket team got from spectators in India a little earlier — both when they won (Chennai) and when they lost (New Delhi) — made it evident that the Jamaat–e–Islami and the Bal Thackerays notwithstanding, amity was the prevailing mood on both sides of the divide. Who then is to be blamed for hijacking the peace process to the chilling Kargil heights?

When investigating a murder case, the first thing any crime investigation agency looks for is motive: Who stands to benefit? An analysis of how things have so quickly, and apparently inexplicably, degenerated from friendship talks to a ‘war–like’ situation can similarly benefit from asking the elementary question: Who benefits from the ominous developments on the border?

From the Indian ‘nationalistic’ perspective, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the obvious villain of the piece. Why should Sharif invite Vajpayee to Lahore in February and then up the ante in less than 100 days? The explanation is that the Pakistani Prime Minister, embroiled into an increasing number of difficulties on the domestic front, badly needed a scapegoat to divert public attention. 

In early 1997, Nawaz Sharif was returned to power with a massive mandate. Barely two years later, his popularity is on a nosedive. Economically, Pakistan is in a shambles, forex reserves are down to a mere one billion dollars (as against India’s reserves of over 33 billion) and the Karachi Stock Exchange in an acute state of depression. 

Politically, there is increasing talk within the country today of Pakistan being a “failed state”. Sharif’s only response to the deepening crisis has been to damage or dismantle any institution that could act as a forum for the articulation of censure, dissent or mass discontent. The Pakistani Prime Minister has ensured that a person of his choice heads the army, the courts have virtually been turned into “handmaidens to the executive”, the free press is under constant assault, the country’s independent Human Rights Commission has been ordered to cease publishing its newsletter and a witch–hunt is now being conducted against all “anti–state” non–governmental organisations (NGOs). Not surprisingly, the highly influential Economist published from London has recently advised the World Bank not to bail out Pakistan since, with the institutions of democracy being attacked and undermined one after another, there will be little accountability left in Pakistani society.

In the face of mounting problems and criticism, inside Pakistan and globally, one option before the beleaguered Sharif was to do what U.S. President Bill Clinton, the former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and many other international leaders did to lift their sagging political fortune — raise the bogey of the external enemy, rouse nationalist fervour and rally people behind yourself. Fortuitously for Sharif, with only a caretaker government in charge in neighbouring New Delhi and with snow melting in the Himalayas, the political and natural climate was just right to play the Kashmir card.

In short, the easy answer to whodunnit question is, Nawaz Sharif.
But from the Pakistani ‘nationalistic’ perspective, the blame is to be heaped entirely on India’s door. Faced with a fresh challenge from ‘freedom fighters’, the Indian state has chosen to pretend it is dealing with Pakistani army–backed infiltrators. Besides, with elections round the corner, the BJP hopes to reap in extra votes by raising the Pakistan bogey. 

Until a few weeks ago, indications were that the outcome of the polls due in the next few months will not be very different from the results of the last Lok Sabha elections in held in early 1998. The BJP–led alliance was hoping to score over its main political rival, the Congress, by raising a hue and cry over the fact that the latter’s prime ministerial candidate is a foreigner by origin. However, there are two problems with the ‘foreigner card’: firstly, the result of recent opinion polls indicate that the electorate is not particularly perturbed with Sonia’s Italian origin; secondly, with Sharad Pawar having revolted on the same issue and with other potential constituents of the new Third Front in–the–making — Mulayam Singh Yadav (U.P.), Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra), Karnataka’s chief minister, J. H. Patel, segments of the Left Front — also bent on playing the same card, the BJP and its allies are unsure about how much dividend the ‘foreign card’ will yield. 

But an Italian–born Prime Minister at a time when the country faces a grave threat from across the border? Surely, the ‘nation in danger’ and ‘foreigner as PM’ mix makes for a much more potent cocktail?

Thus, theoretically speaking, irrespective of their present posturing, continued tension on the Kargil front suits the political needs of both Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Factually speaking, the U.S. and the British response to the Kargil crisis, as also reports in The New York Times and The Independent (London), indicate that they agree with India that Pakistan is the guilty party. Besides, India also claims to have conclusive proof, in the form of dead bodies of Pakistani soldiers, that what it is dealing with in the Himalayan heights is not ‘freedom fighters’ from Kashmir but infiltrators from across the border backed with equipment and personnel of the Pakistani armed forces. But nothing debunks the ‘freedom fighters’ thesis more than the fact that after a gap of nearly 10 years, Kashmir is overflowing with tourists from the rest of India. Surely, it is not guns in the hands of the Indian jawans that are keeping the houseboat owners on the Dal Lake from reaching for the tourists’ throats? 
Even if one assumes this to be the facts of the case, there remains a mystery on the Indian side on what is presently being passed off by different analysts and opposition parties as ‘intelligence failure’, ‘lack of co–ordination between the intelligence and the Indian armed forces’, ‘failure of the defence ministry and the Indian government’ to respond with alacrity to the security threat. Should not a more specific clarification be sought on the timing of the action initiated at Kargil, an action that (coincidentally?) suits the caretaker government facing an election better than resting on the laurels of a newly–initiated peace process? A point being made, in private, by several senior retired army personnel would support this contention: Pakistan’s crossing of the LOC in the Kargil heights is nothing new; what is new is the decision of the caretaker government to challenge the intrusion. 

The question, in other words, is: had the Vajpayee government not fallen in April leading to the imperative of fresh elections, would India and Pakistan still be talking peace, never mind the violations 18,000 feet above sea level?

We reproduce in the following pages an article by a senior journalist from Pakistan (See page 13) who argues that the need for an external enemy — India — is written into the very logic of the direction in which the Pakistani state is moving. On the Indian side, what the caretaker government’s game–plan is for now will become clearer as we get closer to the polls. But beyond the immediate, Teesta Setalvad’s article (see page 16) highlights the fact that in the continuing battle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the people of Kashmir barely figure in the discourse on either side.     

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 1999, Year 6  No. 54, Cover Story 1



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