Below, Rakesh Mani, a New York-based banker and freelance writer, discusses the dilemmas facing leaders in both India and Pakistan in the aftermath of last year’s Mumbai attacks, [Rakesh also contributed “The South Asian Stand,” click here to read]. The piece was recently featured on Gulf News:
With general elections in India just around the corner, the ruling Congress Party is in a difficult spot. Opposition parties keen to usurp votes from the Congress are already accusing them of being “soft on terror” – an allegation that deeply irks India’s voters, who bear fresh memories of the Mumbai mayhem.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s government has little choice. It must dispel notions of its weakness in the face of terror by pressing Pakistan to act swiftly against extremist outfits.
And so we have seen a familiar exchange of threats and recriminations between the two governments. But India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan has been paralyzed by a fear of the alternative. New Delhi is well aware that increasing pressure on President Asif Zardari to act against Lashkar-e-Toiba will only weaken his position and in turn, strengthen Pakistan’s radical right wing.
New Delhi understands that, despite all its faults, Islamabad’s current leadership is its best option.
But in the interests of his people, his party, and his country, the Indian prime minister must show resolve. Appointing the efficient and media-friendly P. Chidambaram to the Home Ministry and empowering the intelligence bureaus are measures that the Congress hopes will convince voters of its seriousness.
But the government would be wise to make certain that the stringent anti-terror measures are both implemented and institutionalized, because another atrocity before the election would put the Congress Party out of power for a long time.
In dealing with Pakistan in the short term, it is likely that the path chosen by the Indian government will be the one that promises the greatest electoral yield.
If Singh wants to avoid a war, but still wants to pander to the rampant anti-Pakistan sentiment among the masses, he can either: move troops into aggressive postures and use the ensuing period of tense brinkmanship to rally the country behind the Indian flag; appease the electorate by allowing cultural and political relations with Pakistan to deteriorate, issue strong statements and lobby Western powers aggressively; or stall and wage a pitched media battle, while strengthening India’s terror-policing architecture. By most measures, India seems to be going unequivocally down path number two.
Zardari, on the other hand, faces equally vexing challenges. Judging by his flamboyant press statements and his offer to send the Inter-Services Intelligence boss to India, he is no hawk. He favors cooperation with India but, despite his best intentions, is powerless in the face of a powerful military establishment and public sentiment.
His dilemma lies in having to balance intense pressure from the world community to exterminate the scourge of radicalism, with his people’s sympathies and their fundamental economic concerns. The Pakistani Army’s offensives in the troubled north-west areas only seem to be evoking more sympathy for the Taliban, who already control the Swat valley and are busy imposing their austere version of Islamic law.
What Zardari does now, and how he does it, will be critical in defining relations with the Indian establishment, and the world.
Meanwhile, in India passions are running high, and right-wing Hindu movements are gaining traction. The “moral policing” attacks in Mangalore by the Sri Ram Sena, who attacked women drinking at a local pub, is emblematic of the fallout.
Mumbai’s attacks seem to have unleashed intense religious biases and right-wing sentiments in the region that effectively feed off each other: the rise of Hindutva movements only further empowers Islamists across the border and vice versa.
But the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to the region brings much hope. It creates a civilian counterbalance to the military hand of General David Petraeus, and harmonizes US foreign policy in the region, which has often been conflicting in its approach to the inter-related situations in Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi.
But easy solutions and happy endings are often hard to come by. And this time will be no different.
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