Bottomline | Sound and Fury

Once again India is ready to sacrifice substance for show

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

For a brief moment, a collective gloom descended over India’s ruling and thinking class with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leading the dirge after the US announced the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. When recently in India, the US secretary of state, Condeleezza Rice did not tell us about the imminent announcement. However, we comforted ourselves that unlike her predecessor, she did not make the announcement from Pakistani soil, but let President Bush break the news to us. What is more, we have been offered licensed production of F-16s and still better F-18 aircraft, and plenty of hope on the nuclear energy front. This is to compensate for F-16s to Pakistan, and for discontinuing nuclear energy relations with Iran. Even as we have not checked with our air force whether they really need a new weapon system (especially a US aircraft) in its inventory, on US’ request, we are certain to review our gas-pipeline understanding with Iran. Our bonhomie at improved relations with the US has not diminished. After having unsuccessfully urged Rice to not sell F-16s to Pakistan, we can now fall back on the statement made by the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi that he will not loose sleep over additional F-16s to Pakistan. (He, however, will loose sleep if the government, in its unrestrained desire to please the US, decides to buy the US’ aircraft, when the air force has expressed its preference for more numbers of aircraft already in its inventory.)

Meanwhile, the government will continue to make light of the Major Non-Nato Ally (MNNA) status that was conferred by the Bush administration on General Musharraf one year ago. We will continue to underplay the far-reaching detrimental implications for us of the US’ move, much as we have already declared the coming visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India on April 9 as a success.




As part of MNNA, amongst other things, the US has let Pakistan off the hook for its unprecedented proliferation of whole nuclear weapon systems to North Korea (bet, this had Beijing’s blessings). Importantly, Afghanistan now is completely in Pakistan’s area of influence, with India looking like a strategic looser. With the Northern Alliance representatives out of his government, there is little that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai can do without Musharraf’s support, much in the same way as the US is dependent on Islamabad for semblance of stability in Afghanistan so as to continue with its focus on Iran. This explains why Musharraf has continued with CBMs over J&K with India, even when he wants early talks on border resolution on his terms. He was simply too busy consolidating his western front. Moreover, he made a virtue out of necessity by showing his peace credentials to India and especially the US over J&K. Aware of his shrewdness and ability to upstage his interlocutors, the Indian leadership is now working overtime to ensure that he does not get the better of them when he visits Delhi on April 16.

In comparison, there is little to worry about Premier Jiabao’s visit, as he will not press us on any contentious issue. India, however, is keen to show some forward movement to own people on the border issue with China. Even as Beijing has solved its border disputes with all countries, with India, let alone a border resolution, it is unwilling to share its perception of how the 4,056km Line of Actual Control runs on maps and ground. The way out is to get China to agree on certain principles for border resolution and then project that as a breakthrough. This exercise has begun with inspired reports in the media that have done one better by declaring that both sides are on the verge of a border resolution. Cheerleaders have started congratulating the government in advance, and the general public is understandably flummoxed. No one is questioning how this border resolution miracle will happen when China has still not accepted Sikkim as a part of India, a quid pro quo understanding reached during Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s June 2003 visit to China: In return for formally declaring Tibet as a part of China, the latter would do the same regarding Sikkim. Unfortunately, Premier Jiabao’s itinerary which includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka before arriving in India is being deliberately underplayed by us. He is visiting our neighbouring countries with which our relations are strained. Moreover, Chinese foreign minister was recently in Nepal to assure the King that all is not lost if India, the US and Britain are not happy with his undermining democracy. China, in any case, does not care much for democracy. However, what it cares for is to increase its area of influence in South Asia, and hence the all-weather friendship with Pakistan. And this will be at India’s cost. India does not seem to worry much about China’s gameplan in its backyard. Unfortunately, India is neither opportunistic like Pakistan nor it does strategic thinking like China. Therefore, it remains a sub-regional power despite enormous potential. Having lost Afghanistan, it is poised to lose Iran as well if it agrees to review the gas pipeline understanding.