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Wednesday, Sep 06, 2006

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All about our neighbours

Sometime ago, reports appeared stating that there had been a rethink within the Government on how to conduct economic ties with Pakistan, the burden of the effort being that the time had now come to tighten the screws on Islamabad a turn or two in view of the continuing belligerence on the part of the latter, particularly on the subject of cross-border terrorism.

To a large number of people, this seeming change in the official stance of New Delhi towards Islamabad was greatly welcome because it meant having recourse, no matter how weak, to the principle of an eye-for-an-eye which, on the face of things, is the only language which the Pakistani strongman, Gen Pervez Musharraf, appears to understand. Indeed, he cannot be blamed for this given the fact that he is a hardboiled member of the Pakistani military, having come to power using the barrel of the gun, as some may like to put it.

Belligerent Musharraf

Take, for example, the Mumbai train bombings, the official Pakistani line being that New Delhi was behaving irresponsibly by blaming terrorist organisations based across the order for the blasts, and that there was simply no evidence that this was in fact the case. This may or may not be so, but the fact remains that in adopting this line Islamabad was making it clear to the world that it was in no mood to cooperate with New Delhi in getting to the bottom of the conspiracy, and that it certainly did not have an open mind on the subject. Gen Musharraf does not have any point to score here: The world knows that, among others, Kashmiri terrorist groups are based in Pakistan — and, of course, everyone cannot be wrong all the time.

Why, then, should New Delhi go out of its way to behave in such a manner with Islamabad which smacks of weakness and a lack of resolve, especially when it is up against someone who has to keep the anti-India front going full blast to protect his own position vis--vis the Pakistani military? One is of course not suggesting that New Delhi should unfurl the flag and wade into the thick of battle knowing full well that that is not the way to make any meaningful, strategic headway on the Kashmir issue (which forms the bedrock of our relations with Pakistan).

Why play to gallery?

But the country does not have to play to the gallery as it were, specially on the well-meaning but vacuous plea that India cannot choose its neighbours. Of course, it cannot. But Pakistan cannot either, and if it has chosen to wield the stick (both verbal and on the ground — through the export of terrorists) then there should be a controlled response from New Delhi transmitting the message that we can play the same game a bit better than they can.

The Prime Minister is slated to meet Gen Musharraf in Havana soon. The fear is that New Delhi may initiate another round of bonhomie with the neighbour which, inevitably, will end in another spat, thus being consistent with what has been happening in India-Pakistan relations over the past decade and more. Maybe, there is no way to avoid this. But what precisely is stopping New Delhi from taking a hard line on SAFTA (going to the WTO on the MFN issue, for example) and generally becoming a bit difficult on the trade front, which would have the effect of putting back Islamabad at a least a notch when the new round of fake cooperation begins.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

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