By Swapan Dasgupta
When he made his momentous broadcast at 11am on September 3, 1939 to announce that Germany had not replied to the ultimatum served on it and that "consequently, Great Britain and Germany were at war", Neville Chamberlain didn't quite rise to the occasion. A character in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On is recorded as remarking that the speech was so utterly deadpan that the Prime Minister may as well have been announcing a "by-election defeat".
Mercifully, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn't deem it appropriate to say something in public after the tranquillity of a Monday morning was disturbed by the excitement over the "fire-fight" that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He waited till evening before issuing a message so tepid that it could as well have recorded the Reserve Bank's rise in interest rates. Where most of India was in a 'we told you so' mood and revelling in Pakistan's misfortune at having been caught cheating, our Prime Minister was unmoved.
It is likely that the mirth over a neighbour being found in a proverbial compromising position may turn out to be a passing show. The country that deftly managed to ride out the A.Q. Khan scandal, the US anger after 9/11 and the global indignation that followed the 26/11 Mumbai outrage has by now developed the hide of a rhinoceros and is unlikely to be affected by the discovery that the world's most wanted terrorist was safely ensconced in a town teeming with the military. To believe that today's Pakistan can be shamed into goodness is like hoping Harry Flashman (in Tom Brown's Schooldays) would cease to be a cad and become a true gentleman.
Yet, it was not cynicism that prompted Singh's apparent show of detachment. Since the SAARC summit in Thimphu last February, Singh has tried to turn India's Pakistan policy upside down. The earlier position—robustly reaffirmed after the Mumbai outrage of 2008—of making meaningful bilateral engagement conditional on Pakistan's disengagement from all acts of terrorism was substituted by a candyfloss diplomacy premised on the belief that engagement was the best way to make Islamabad fall in line. It is not that New Delhi was blind to the roguish agenda of a section of the Pakistan military and its intelligence services. However, it was felt that the fragile civilian dispensation would be strengthened if India demonstrated magnanimity. Singh, in short, was also engaging in a civilising mission: to bolster the 'good' Pakistani establishment and isolate the 'bad' guys in the cantonments.
The progress of what has subsequently been dubbed the 'spirit of Mohali' depended crucially on public indifference. Singh appears to have calculated that the fierce preoccupation with domestic politics would give him the space to proceed quickly but silently on building bridges with Pakistan. What he didn't want was the furore that greeted the Sharm-el-Sheikh declaration of July 2009 where the U-turn was unveiled for the first time. That storm resulted in even the Congress distancing itself from its Prime Minister's initiative.
To the extent that the Abbottabad raid has brought Pakistan's duplicity in full international glare, Singh's muted response to the US's show of might is understandable. Pakistan, after all, has been exposed as monumentally perfidious. Osama wasn't just an ordinary terrorist: he personified America's perception of evil. Pakistan doesn't merely face the wrath of the White House, Capitol Hill and Langley; it is confronted by the collective anger of an entire nation. It will take considerable ingenuity and grovelling on the part of Pakistan to get its relationship with the US back on a surer footing.
As more and more evidence of Pakistan's double-game hits the American networks, public opinion in the US is certain to become more and more hostile to the idea of subsiding a rogue state with billions of dollars and sophisticated armaments. A re-born President Barack Obama who has added machismo to his list of political attributes can hardly go against public sentiment—and certainly not in the run-up to next year's presidential election.
Ironically, the West's pressure on Pakistan to come clean on its relationship with Osama and stop "looking both ways" is likely to play out very differently within that country. Pakistan may not be a text-book model of a functioning democracy but even here public opinion cannot be ignored. The remarkable ease with which a beleaguered Pakistan establishment was able to steer the public debate into one involving the violation of national sovereignty, thereby giving full expression to the prevailing torrent of anti-Americanism, is revealing. It suggests that far from this national embarrassment opening a window of opportunity to the 'good' Pakistanis to question an unscrupulous and rotten dispensation, a wave of perverse xenophobia and Osama worship could become the pretext for an already illiberal society to turn medieval. A cocktail of xenophobia and religion may make sensible Pakistani voices irrelevant.
There is a section of radical opinion in the Islamic world that feels that the West is economically so challenged that the threat of more upheaval will force it to retreat, leaving Pakistan to reclaim its pre-2001 status in Afghanistan. This is not a wild calculation. Underneath the triumphalism that has manifested itself in the US is also a feeling that the war goals set after 9/11 have been achieved and that it is time to leave the region to its anarchic fate. The flip side of this belief is that the West's disengagement is certain to be seen as a triumph of Islamist radicalism and a posthumous victory of the 'martyr' of Abbottabad.
In whichever direction the endgame finally plays out, India will not be unaffected by the shifts. The tenuous assumptions on which Singh built his policy of appeasement towards Pakistan seem set to fall apart. No wonder he preferred the written to the spoken word: he would have sounded like someone who had just lost a general election.