Monday, 23 February 2009

The Elephant and the Ostrich.

For those who think the Taliban are far away from India, rough road distances from Swat to the Indian border at Kashmir are around 300 km (less than half a day's drive) and to New Delhi less a 1000 km. That is roughly the same as the distance from Delhi to Patna in Bihar, or Delhi to Bangalore. If I were to borrow a small aircraft from the LTTE and take off from Swat after breakfast, I could probably crash into Delhi around lunch.

The Indian Government will well understand the implications of mainland Pakistan that close to India going over to the Taliban. Unfortunately, for the ordinary Indian citizen, Swat is far away. People just do not realise how close to ground zero they actually are. The poor and the uneducated don't know; the rich and the educated have their heads in the sand.

Recent reports of scheduled talks in Washington between the US administration and Pakistani officials may encourage some. Unfortunately, unless there is a substantial and radical change in policy and strategy, President Obama and his administration will continue to do more of the same thing, and so, logically, they will get more of the same results. I may agree that options in AfPak (the coining of this new term for the region is telling in itself) are limited with the alarming resurgence- indeed, alarming expansion- of the Taliban. Capitulation, however, should not be an option. There may be good Taliban and bad Taliban out there, although I would not bet on it. In any event, there are no Taliban out there that do not pose a threat to Indian security. You will pardon me if I say that a strategy of Predator attacks combined with handing over vast areas of Pakistan to the Taliban does not make me break out the champagne or break into song.

It is time, in my view, for India to push for inclusion in direct talks between Washington and Pakistan, because an unstable Pakistan a step closer to disintegration precipitates grave security, logistical and humanitarian threats to us. We probably could not predict, at the time of the Bangladesh war in 1971, that terrorism from within that country's borders would be a clear and ongoing menace to India. We will not learn anything new the second time we are kicked by a mule either, even one on another border. The fact that this mule has clear links with terrorism going back decades and is hostile to us should spur us to shake off our inertia faster. Pakistan is slipping the Iraq way- from being a US ally with a moderate majority in the population to paying for the real and imagined sins of its regime(s), to a state approaching civil war. If India does not become part of the solution now, we risk having the first nuclear state controlled by terrorists as our neighbour. Right now, most of us assume that the US will do something in that eventuality. Maybe, though to think that the US will put our national interests above its own is folly. In any case, a sixth of the world's population- and an economic superpower in the making- cannot simply outsource its national security.

The Indian electronic media has the greatest multilingual reach within our borders. It should take up this cause instead of the local crime victim causes it usually pursues for nightmarish durations. Analysts, talking heads and opposition politicians should be brought in. Doubtless, the first step is to educate the uneducated and to galvanise the aware. It is time to underline the risk that the increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society poses to us. The middle class, as is usual, will be alarmed most by the economic threat a disintegration of Pakistan will cause to the limping Indian economy; use that fear. The Indian government should be pressurised in this election year; their democratic buttons have to be pushed so they can then push buttons in the US an elsewhere.

Sure, there is probably quiet diplomacy going on between India and the US as we speak. So far, though, there has been no visible public commentary in India on this approaching threat. There is no public opinion pressurising the Government of India to push for direct involvement in the resolution to the crisis in Pakistan. While such a clamour will undoubtedly alarm some Pakistanis, it is up to India to stake its claim at the table. That such a claim should be made in a calibrated and mature way that stresses a non-aggressive Indian stance is a given. That such a claim is not made is inexcusable.


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