Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Talking to Pak is blind man's bluff (February 21, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the great unresolved issues in the media can be reduced to a simple question: Do journalists write for each other and, by implication, their informants, or do they write for the enlightenment of readers?

The question arises in the context of a special coded language that appears to have evolved in foreign policy and strategic affairs circles. Those familiar with the reports of those frequenting two adjoining buildings in South Block may have noted the remarkable frequency with which some expressions recur. When it comes to dealing with our most difficult neighbour, every policy initiative is either deftly ‘calibrated’ or carefully ‘nuanced’.

So it was last Thursday when a senior official, endearingly described as “sources” by the Times of India and “official sources” by the Hindu, deemed it appropriate to brief the media on the forthcoming talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. The February 25 meeting, declared the “official sources” to the Hindu, “is not aimed at resolving the outstanding issues. We are fully conscious of the complexities involved in the process and are, therefore, adopting a nuanced approach to the dialogue”.

Just in case you thought that the Hindu report was too fuzzy, here is what the Times of India had to say. The talks, it said, “could be the beginning of something bigger but that would depend on what Pakistan does during the talks and in the weeks ahead”. Consequently, “the Indian side will be going in with minimal expectations”.

But hang on. A long paragraph later, the Times of India makes an astonishing admission: “For India, which is working out a more nuanced policy on Pakistan, dialogue is only one part of the overall strategy, said sources.”

Unless the hapless reader actually believes that “sources” mean more than one person and that different newspapers have different “sources”, what is he/she to make of India’s great “nuanced” approach? First, that there are modest expectations from the February 25 talks. Second, that despite the anticipation of impending disappointment, the meeting could well be the beginning of a wonderful friendship — recall the last scene of Casablanca when Rick and Louis finally find camaraderie. Finally, that dialogue is only a fraction of the overall “nuanced” policy. With patience will arrive the next instalment of gift-wrapped nuances.

A reader determined to get the exact dope on ‘inside thinking’ in South Block may well arrive at some awkward but inescapable conclusions. The first is that the “nuanced” policy that is about to unfold on February 25 may equally be described as blind man’s bluff (or ‘buff’ if you so prefer), with India playing the blindfolded ‘It’. With some luck India could surprise a complacent opponent or it could be spending a great deal of time groping around a room aimlessly.

The second conclusion is that neighbourhood diplomacy isn’t exactly rocket science. Behind the nice sounding platitudes and theoretical postulates, the fine print of ‘international relations’ and ‘conflict resolution’ are often indistinguishable from ordinary political manoeuvring. True, there are some considered decisions and odd flashes of tactical brilliance on both sides. But more often than not diplomacy is propelled by the same ad-hocism that marks normal politics. What shapes policy isn’t some grand design but what Harold Macmillan aptly described as “Events, events, events.”

The final conclusion, which also stems from the demystification of mandarin-speak, is that foreign policy is shielded by an astonishing degree of non-transparency. In hindsight, it now seems apparent that the decision to ‘de-couple’ dialogue from acts of terrorism was taken by PM Manmohan Singh in his meeting with the Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2009. But it has taken India seven months to even own up to this apparent show of foolishness/magnanimity.
Ideally, the ubiquitous “sources” would have loved telling the country that the Prime Minister faith in the essential goodness of the Pakistani establishment hasn’t been misplaced. But since sadhbhavna is a bit difficult to sell after the Pune blast, not least because the trail has a disconcerting habit of leading back to ‘non-state players’ in Pakistan, a different tack has been adopted.

This time the plot has centred on Afghanistan and the nefarious designs of Pakistani Army Chief Kayani. If we don’t talk, the “sources” tell us, Pakistan will manufacture tensions to divert its forces away from the border with Afghanistan. This redeployment will enable the Taliban, retreating from the latest NATO-led push, to return to their sanctuaries in the badlands of Pakistan and live to fight another day. Since the Western forces are working to a tight deadline which will expire in two years, it is in India’s interest to prevent Pakistan from getting worked up over India. In a nutshell, India must engage Pakistan for the sake of the larger good in Afghanistan.

There is an alternative way of expressing this formulation: India must smoke a peace pipe with Pakistan because it helps the West in Afghanistan. Pakistan must be kept distracted and made to feel happy by India till the ‘good’ Taliban can be persuaded to return to the Afghan mainstream.

It is not that the Afghan dimension is contrived. But it doesn’t explain why Manmohan was willing to sup with the devil seven months ago and why he tried to placate Parliament with spurious assurances of Pakistani sincerity. It doesn’t explain why Pakistan is jubilant at having made India blink first. It doesn’t explain Manmohan’s inability to make the West acknowledge India’s concerns over Afghanistan.

For some time, it has been the unstated assumption of the UPA Government that foreign policy is beyond popular comprehension and best left that way. The punishing demands of democratic accountability can at best be encountered with ‘nuanced’ sophistry. It’s a clever Brahmanical ploy that confuses our own people but never succeeds in deterring the marauders.

Sunday Pioneer, February 21, 2010

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