Taj by no moonlight
4 July 2001
The Hindustan Times
New Delhi: July is the height of midsummer madness on the subcontinent. For three Julys in a row, the good old United States, seeking to
re-establish sanity on the subcontinent, has had to make available its good offices for the cause of peace.
It was exactly two years ago on July 4 that President Bill Clinton took time off from official festivities on American
Independence Day to meet with Pakistan’s last Punjabi ruler, Nawaz Sharif, at Blair House. But for the deal Clinton cut with
Sharif on Pakistan’s full withdrawal from Kargil, the Indians would have had to wait much longer to claim victory. By
interceding, Clinton saved many Indian and Pakistani lives, even if his action contributed to the demise of democracy in
Then in July 2000, the Indians, in consultation with Washington, announced with fanfare a ceasefire with the Hizbul Mujahideen,
flying their home secretary to Srinagar to be photographed with the terrorist group’s local commander. That initiative was to be
followed by a larger LoC ceasefire. But before the full, US-blessed plan could be unveiled, Hizb chieftain Syed Salahuddin,
ensconced in the ISI’s lap, threw a mighty spanner in the works.
This July the Americans are again in business but as out-of-sight players. The India-friendly Bush administration, correctly, does
not want to be identified as a catalyst in the Agra summit process, as any overt admission of its role will make the going tougher
for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan military dictator Pervez Musharraf. It, however, deeply embarrassed
New Delhi by prematurely declaring the summit date.
The Americans sanctified other initiatives, too. They promoted the Lahore Declaration, encouraged the release of the Hurriyat
men (a group of 23 felons or mohalla dadas whom New Delhi has built up as ‘leaders’ and provided security cover), and
blessed the ceasefire on the occasion of Ramazan (which India stretched unreligiously for six long months).
Despite the supportive US role, New Delhi has had a serious problem getting anything right. It has tripped up on one initiative
after another. When the bus diplomacy failed, with the bus itself getting hijacked to Kargil, it took to ceasefire diplomacy. But
the various ceasefires, be it with the Hizb, or on Ramazan, or in the North-east, have only stoked fires.
Against that background, the big question is whether the new Taj Mahal diplomacy by moonless night will bring light — in
terms of tangible results, not the official spin — and whether the gains, if any, will hold, unlike post-Lahore. The silly hype over
the summit and the troubling lack of transparency on what is likely to be discussed have stymied any discussion on substance.
The Americans, despite their preoccupation with other regional and global issues, are doing their bit to help out. Yet it is unclear
what fundamental progress can be achieved at Agra. Kashmir, after all, is just the symbol, not the cause, of the Indo-Pak
Given the bitter history they share, can India and Pakistan be expected to suddenly bury their hatchet and smoke the peace
pipe? India is already seeking to entice Pakistan with a more alluring peace pipe that will not go off in smoke but bring in hefty
royalty flows of $ 200-300 million a year.
If a deal for an overland gas pipeline from Iran goes through, it will mark another U-turn by New Delhi, which had been loudly
insisting that it wanted energy security, not energy insecurity by allowing Pakistani political control over the supply channel. By
investing one-third more initially in an underwater, continental-shelf pipeline route that bypasses Pakistan, India could save both
money in the long run and potential disruption in supply.
To make headway, the Taj Mahal diplomacy has to differentiate between Islamabad’s motivations for dialogue and what it will
take to make Pakistan live in peace with India. The top-level official briefings being given to select newspaper editors reveal a
naïve and disturbing appraisal — that Islamabad’s dialogue motivations are also propelling its desire for peace.
For Pakistan, dialogue with India is tactically wise and politically advantageous. It is valuable for improving its global image and
building its military regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the West. It also meets a key condition set by multilateral and bilateral
creditors for further debt-service rescheduling. But do these motivations translate into a desire for real and lasting peace?
Neither New Delhi nor Washington can ignore the Islamabad-Beijing-Rangoon axis and the growing Chinese leverage over
Pakistan. Moreover, India’s internal problems, especially in Kashmir, make New Delhi less of a potentially promising ally to the
US. Given the high priority current US policy accords to the termination of Islamabad’s links with the Taliban, Washington is
loath to leave its longtime ally Pakistan in the cold as it warms up to India. All these factors, plus India’s ambitions to be a
permanent member of the UN Security Council, validate Vajpayee’s search for peace with Pakistan.
But Vajpayee cannot proceed on the basis that what is good for India is good for Islamabad. Peace with New Delhi will
marginalise Pakistan regionally and internationally, allowing India to emerge as the undisputed regional giant and peer
competitor to China. The Sino-Pak nexus will cease to hold strategic value — to the detriment of China’s containment strategy.
A Pakistan stripped of its core cementing element — eternal enmity with India — will be reduced to a battlefield for its five
feuding ethnic groups.
Such potentially asymmetrical peace dividends suggest that dialogue by itself cannot bring progress. In fact, the 1989-99
decade of Indo-Pak dialogue and confidence-building measures was marked by an escalating proxy war against India and
direct aggression post-Lahore.
No peace process can be sustained when one side is driven by far-reaching strategic objectives and the other side merely
seeks narrow tactical gains. This mismatch was evident at Simla and Lahore. Vajpayee has to beware of another snare: While
seeking to break India free from the subcontinental straitjacket, his foreign policy should not get so fixated on Islamabad as to
reinforce this country’s image as a Siamese twin of Pakistan.
Pakistan genuinely believes that it is because of the trump card it holds — its ability to bleed India — and the consequent Indian
fatigue in fighting its jehad that Vajpayee is frantically pursuing one peace initiative after another. Pakistan’s precarious
economic state, contrary to what many Indians believe, has little to do with its ‘war of a thousand cuts’ against India.
Islamabad can sustain that covert war indefinitely because it is cheap and so effective that an enmeshed and weakened India
does not dare to retaliate, as if it masochistically enjoys being bled by its much smaller rival. The most bloated estimates of the
proxy war’s economic costs show that they make up less than 5 per cent of Pakistan’s defence budget. Politically, Pakistan’s
Taliban links are far costlier than its sponsorship of terrorism in India as the latter gets internationally clubbed with the Kashmir
Yet most Indian analyses on Pakistan contain a sneering, self-righteous tone and underestimate that country’s capacity and
resilience. India has to realistically and creatively manage its Pakistan problem as it is unlikely to go away. In fact, India’s and
Pakistan’s competing visions, clashing worldviews and conflicting goals ominously imply that the two are locked in a mortal
Pakistan clearly sees its salvation in India’s balkanisation. A balkanised India offers Pakistan the only escape from its economic
problems stemming from an unsustainably high level of military spending. Since it cannot militarily dismember India, it believes it
can bleed its rival to death. India, in contrast, sees Pakistan as a failing state bound to unravel unless it makes peace with it.
Pakistan, however, is determined to put the Indian republic out of business.
The last mortal combat in history ended in the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The winner of that is now a quiet mediator in the
subcontinental mortal combat. Such mediation currently is to India’s advantage but it cannot release India from the problem it
confronts. The question is whether this mortal combat will stop before the grand finale and, if not, whether status quoist India or
irredentist Pakistan will disappear from the political map of the world.