Saturday 27 February 2010

FM Qureshi seen as Army favourite (PO)

M D Nalapat

Although as yet far behind in quantitative terms, the Indian elite see their country as China’s equal. While rates of growth have decelerated in China since the 1980s,they have accelerated in India. And like Pakistan, the second most-populous country in the world has a young population, while China’s is ageing. By 2027, the effect of this is expected to boost India’s prospects of catching up with what will at that time be the world’s largest economy (in Purchasing Power Parity terms), China. Hence it was with anger that South Block, the home of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of external Affairs, heard of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s “blank cheque” to the Chinese Communist Party to mediate the Indo-Pakistan dispute.

Earlier, US President Barack Obama had made a cringing visit to China, during which he had generously made to the Chinese leadership the offer first made by Bill Clinton 13 years earlier, of partnering with Washington in “managing” India-Pakistan relations. That offer had led to the mistrust of Obama that today pervades the Indian establishment Why did Foreign Minister Qureshi make such a statement just two days before Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two sub continental neighbours? He would certainly have been aware of the strong Indian distaste of involving any country in the bilateral tango between India and Pakistan, especially China, which since 1963 has been aligned with Islamabad in its bid to limit Delhi’s freedom of action. There are three theories doing the rounds within Raisina Road, the Indian Beltway.

The first, popular among think-tankers and some academics, is that Foreign Minister Qureshi is more cut out to be General Secretary of the PPP than Foreign Minister. He is regarded as having a populist approach to issues, and to issuing statements that appeal to the anti-India constituency in Pakistan, but have the effect of increasing the already substantial mistrust of him in South Block. This view holds that he is prone to playing to the gallery, and makes statements that reflect the tastes of his immediate audience, rather than be anchored to issues of diplomacy. The think tankers therefore feel that he need not be taken seriously. Indeed, that he can be ignored if not excused for shooting off statements that can be expected to create anger in Delhi The second view, which is favoured by strategists in the military, is that the Pakistan establishment is not serious about peace with India. That they are only making the motions of seeking a peaceful resolution of issues because of the need to remain on the good side of the ubiquitous Uncle Sam. The military has long been sceptical about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s burning desire to make peace with a country to which he naturally has a sentimental attachment, Pakistan. Since 2006,in the face of a sceptical establishment, the Prime

Minister has persevered in his sear ch for an accommodation with Islamabad, and is known to lean towards concessions opposed by the military, such as an evacuation from Siachen. Recently, he removed the National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan, an expert in Intelligence, who was sceptical of the prospects for an India-Pakistan modus vivendi. Narayanan has been replaced by former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who has served as envoy to both China and Pakistan. The replacement of a hardened intelligence operative by a diplomat in the key post of National Security Advisor reflects the thinking of Prime Minister Singh, who wants to make a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations the cornerstone of his legacy, now that economic reform has slowed to a crawl However, despite several meetings, the Prime Minister has been unable to convince the generals that their counterparts in Pakistan are serious about peace. They believe that efforts will continue to inflame the situation in Kashmir, and in other areas, so that talks will be reduced to a charade. This influential segment of the Indian establishment - the uniformed services - consider Foreign Minister Qureshi’s Beijing statement (inviting China to mediate) as a well-considered and deliberate provocation designed to harden the Indian negotiating position, so that the hawks in Islamabad can say that Delhi is not serious about peace. That there is no “asha” that there will be “aman”.

This is in contrast to the think-tankers, who disregard the statement as reflecting what they see as the Foreign Minister’s casual approach to diplomacy While both these assessments have surfaced in the media,what has not is the third viewpoint about the Qureshi speech, a view that is the result of careful deliberation in the hidden corridors of the governmental machinery, and is based on a variety of sources and bits of information. According to this view, more than Prime Minister Gilani, it is Foreign Minister Qureshi who is the favourite of the all-powerful Pakistan Army. It is well-known that the Army dislikes President Zardari, an emotion apparently shared by Hillary Clinton, who was an enthusiastic backroom supporter of the operation that destroyed the power of President Zardari, which is the return of Chief Justice Chaudhry. Highly influential - if seldom seen - circles in India regard Zardari as a liberal who would have been willing to take on the radicals, even in the military, had he been given support by Washington. They regard Hillary’s policy of boxing in Zardari in deference to the military as suicidal to efforts to ensure that radicals be removed from influence. They see Prime Minister Gilani as much less willing to be confrontationist than President Zardari, and as a leader who would prefer to take the Middle Course in any dispute rather than stake out a hardline position, the way Zardari once did (when he made some unprecedented statemewnts about India not being a threat to Pakistan) or as Qureshi is doing these days.

This group sees Qureshi as the favourite of the Pakistan Army, and therefore in line to become Prime Minister of Pakistan should President Zardari be made to step down by the Chief Justice and be replaced with the present PM. They see Qureshi as another Benjamin Netanyahu, a tough hardliner who will not dilute his positions for the sake of accommodation with Pakistan’s big neighbour to the east. For this team, the several India-baiting statements coming from the Pakistan Foreign Minister have been scripted by Army HQ, which – in this view - is looking for tensions with India so as to divert the focus away from the situation in the west. However, the odds are low that India will fall into such a trap again. The last time a Prime Minister of India went in for a show of force (Vajpayee in 2002), the cost was so heavy that India’s growth prospects got affected. These days, very few believe that war is the answer. They seek an accommodation that is largely based on the status quo, and are confident that ultimately this is what will happen.

However, not so long as Shah Mehmood Qureshi calls the shots in diplomacy! It seems that peace will just have to wait, the way it has waited for sixty long and bitter years.

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