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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 15 New Delhi April 2, 2016

Prime Minister’s Predicament

Monday 4 April 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Robin Raphel came and went as was expected at the present state of Indo-US relations. The visit of a junior officer of the US State Department was played up by a section of the establishment as if this country has chosen to downgrade itself to the status of a nondescript Timbuctoo, where everything short of a red-carpet and a presidential guard of honour was provided for.

The manner in which she had hit the headlines in the last few months—questioning the very accession of Kashmir to the Indian Union, attacking Indian authorities for human rights violations in Kashmir, and finally equating it with the civil-war crisis in Afghanistan—would normally have got her brickbats more than bouquets. However, despite all this media-hype, Robin during her New Delhi rounds must have got an idea of the fall-out of her impertinent pronouncements from the entire spectrum of public opinion from the Union Home Minister right upto the corporate sector luminaries like Raunaq Singh, who minced no words in telling her off.

Robin Raphel on her part tried to be circumspect in New Delhi, avoiding what she called, “to get into history” over the Kashmir dispute, focussing not on how it started but how it can be ended, through negotiations and political process. One got the impression that her provocative statements on Kashmir in the past were as calculated as the sweet reasonableness in New Delhi—stoking the confrontation posture and then playing the conciliator.

There is no reason to get excited, one way or the other, over Robin Raphel’s performance in Washington or New Delhi. More important for us is to understand the US strategy in handling the South Asian situation, particularly the Indo-Pakistan crisis. Officially the US position is that it is anxious to defuse the eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two neighbours as this might touch off a nuclear war. The reality is that the Pakistani military establishment enjoys strong backing from the Pentagon.

Those who held the view that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s importance in the US strategic map has gone down, are mistaken since the USA needs a strategic foothold in the region to oversee the entire spectrum from Sinkiang in the east to Iran in the west with the newly emerging Central Asian republics with their rich mineral deposits and proximity to the sprawling giant of Russia which might again rise from its present torpor—the new Crescent of Crisis, as Olaf Caroe would have called it. Despite the fiasco in Afghanistan where the US operated through its trusted military junta in Pakistan, there is no question of the Pentagon or the State Department abandoning Islamabad. Benazir Bhutto has an effective lobby within the Democratic Party which enabled the silent US mediation to bring about a rapprochement between her and the military junta, so that she could provide the democratic facade of an elected government with the military bosses ruling the roost.

It is in this context that one has to examine the latest US move to supply F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. There is no question that Washington has to placate the military brass at Islamabad. In fact, the morale of this junta needs to be boosted particularly after its failure so far in its active proxy war against India by despatching armed secessionists into the Kashmir Valley. The F-16s are thus very much needed to signal Pentagon’s unwavering support for Pakistan’s military bosses. Senator Larry Pressler has also exposed how the additional imperative of placating the Lockheeds has led the Clinton Administration to arrange for the delivery of the F-16 aircraft to Pakistan.

To cover up this dirty deal and to provide a respectable alibi for violating the Pressler Amendment which debars aid to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons drive, the State Department argument—which Robin Raphel repeated in New Delhi last week—is that this would enable the USA to persuade Islamabad to abandon its nuclear-weapons programme. How hollow this American plea is can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan’s entire nuclear bomb project—Bhutto’s Islamic bomb—has been conceived and worked out over the years with the government there all the time denying it altogether. Nobody in the wide world—not even the US Administration—can take seriously any commitment by the Pak establishment that it would cap its N-bomb programme in exchange for a fleet of F-16s.

More sinister is the further move that the Clinton Administration is going to make—most likely through Strobe Talbott during his visit to New Delhi next month—that since Pakistan has agreed to cap its N-bomb programme, India must do the same. The Indian position, reiterated over and over again, is that India cannot abandon its nuclear option so long as there is the potential threat from a whole range of countries from China, the Central Asian republics right upto Israel, apart from Pakistan. There could be no discriminatory imposition of nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime on India which, on its part, would readily give up the nuclear option the very day that is done by all the other nuclear powers, particularly those which fall within the range of potential attack on this country.

So, the turning down of the US proposal by India would be exploited by the US that Pakistan Government could not be disciplined on the nuclear question because India refused to respond to the US proposal. Thus the tables are likely to be neatly turned against India on the nuclear question. As for Kashmir, it appears that the US strategy now is to force third-party mediation—that is, either Washington staging its own Tashkent (that is, a revised version of Camp David) or the good offices of the UN Secretary-General for a new version of peace-keeping.

It is in this background that the question of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington has to be viewed. Since last year, this question has been hanging fire. Washington put off the question until it found that the Prime Minister has not only survived the ordeal of the mini-general election in December, but is now about to complete three years in office. At the New Delhi end, there is considerable eagerness on the part of a good section of the present establish-ment that Narasimha Rao should soon pay a visit to Washington and call on the chief executive of the only remaining superpower, particularly in the congenial environment created by India’s economic reforms which has earned a lot of kudos in the US corporate sector. Particularly conspicuous in prodding for this Washington trip by the Prime Minister is a well-known business house whose high visibility could be detected among the politicos since the Bofors scandal came into view. The buzz word of this lobby is that the access to the White House is easier via the corporate sector than the normal diplomatic channel.

While in principle, a meeting between India’s Prime Minister and the US President is unexpectionable—in fact a normal practice in normal circumstances—Narasimha Rao has to take into account its impact on the domestic front. With Washington sending F-16s to Pakistan, and planning to pressurise India to abandon the nuclear option, the Prime Minister’s trip to Washington at this juncture can earn him only negative dividends in terms of the government’s standing before the public of other country. Both these items would help the Opposition to beat the government with. In this words, what can Narasimha Rao get out of the projected trip to Washington apart from political devaluation at home?

An extremely cautious person that he is by nature, and seasoned to sense the public mood, this is indeed a difficult choice for Narasimha Rao.

(Mainstream, April 2, 1984)