CHIDAMBARAM FOR SOFT POLICY ON MILITANTS

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, December 03, 2010 – The Union Home Minister of India, Palanipaan Chidambaram, was among the highest-paid lawyers in the country even while he dabbled in politics. He is therefore accustomed to reading from a brief, and sharpening the arguments that his clients seek to make. It is no secret on Raisina Road, the stately colonial-era avenue that fronts North and South Block, that although he is bound by the Constitution of India to report to the Prime Minister,in fact he reports to Congress President (CP) Sonia Gandhi, who since 2004 has enjoyed the benefits of unlimited governmental power without any legal responsibility. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, the loyal Minister of State Prithviraj Chavan used to consult her and her close associates before any major decision got taken.

Chavan’s ability to steer investigations by agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) (the country’s premier police agency) is legendary. Suffice it to say that under his watch, no individual who accommodated the interests of the Congress President has suffered at the hands of the CBI, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and other agencies was harassed,while few individuals who went against those same interests escaped unscathed. These days,the CBI,the DRI and the ED have become bywords for corruption and cronyism, and enjoy sub-zero credibility within the Indian public. As for the efficiemt Minister of State in the PMO,he has been rewarded for his fealty by being annoited Chief Minister of the most lucrative state in India,Maharashtra,the capital of which is Mumbai.Another PMO official whose job was to ensure that the writ of the Congress President was followed within the Manmohan Singh government was sent off to a foreign capital for a well-deserved break,before he returns in triumph next year on a major promotion. As in Pakistan, in India as well,sweet are the rewards of absolute loyalty to well-connected individuals.

Home Minister Chidambaram is on the same page as Prithviraj Chavan when it comes to ensuring that commands from the “Congress High Command” ( a shorthand expression that refers to CP Sonia Gandhi and her immediate family) get carried out. Interestingly,while in his first term as PM (2004-2009), Manmohan Singh was seen to stand aside while associates of the CP gave orders to officials in “his” government, these days, he seems to have accepted that the mountain of corruption that has followed as a result of the policy of Politics in Command is in danger of smothering the future of India. Even in the first months after he was sworn in for the second time last year, the mild-mannered economist ensured that key individuals enjoying political protection – such as the boss of the Medical Council of India,Ketan Desai – were sent to jail. Today,although a media fed by the politically well-connected ( in obvious and in other ways) concentrates its fire on India’s spotlessly clean PM rather than on the politicians actually responsible for the scams now getting unearthed, the fact is that in both the Commonwealth Games probe as well as in the 2G Spectrum probe,the CBI’s reluctant team of investigators is being forced by the Prime Minister to actually identify the guilty rather than – as usual – find out an escape route for them to enjoy their illegal gains. However,while the PM seems to have broken free – to a considerable though not yet a complete extent – of the political pressures that so affected his first term, the Union Home Minister continues to keep his antennae poised towards the political groups that he expects will make him the PM, once Manmohan Singh gets forced to quit,the way influential people in the Congress Party and in the United Progressive Alliance want him to. An example of such adherence to this form of “political correctness” is Chidambaram’s ultra-soft line on Kashmir. The Union Home Minister has even approved the plan of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah (who understandably seems to prefer London and Dubai to either Srinagar or Delhi) to allow back into India those who went across the border into Pakistan since 1989 to get training in the carrying out of the armed struggle for “azaadi”.

During the 1970s,under the approving gaze of then PM Indira Gandhi,Sheikh Abdullah – the grandfather of Omar – implemented the same policy as Omar is seeking to carry out now,of allowing back into Kashmir tens of thousands of individuals who had left to settle on the Pakistan side. In the space of a decade, these same individuals became the fulcrum for the “azaadi” movement that erupted in Kashmir since 1988,soon after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan ended in defeat for the USSR. It took another decade before conditions in Kashmir stabilised to a level that made the separation of that state from India a strong possibility.This columnist was involved in informal discussions held by then PM P V Narasimha Rao about the ongoing insurgency in Kashmir, and witnessed the despair that was felt,especially during 1994, at the twin threats of the internal insurgency and the external backing it got during that time by the international community. Although he and his team – primary among whom was General K V Krishna Rao – has not got the credit they deserve for damping down the insurgency in Kashmir,the reality is that several of the measures introduced then had immediate and far-reaching effects. Among these was the policy of full amnesty for Kashmiri militants ready to lay down the gun.

These were accepted back into society and rehabilitated,while foreign militants continued to be gunned down wherever they were found,despite the support they had from Saudi Arabia,China,the EU and the US. Next,Kashmiris were encouraged to settle down in other parts of India and to buy property and businesses there,so that they had a stake in the unity of India.Another policy was to ensure the development of the regions within Kashmir that had been neglected by the Valley-centred political leadership of the state. By the time Rao left office in 1996 (after losing the general election because of a split in the Congress Party engineered by a pro-Sonia group), the situation in Kashmir was evolving in a manner that allowed Delhi to reclaim control over the ground situation. These days,despite frequent eruptions from Valley Sunnis eager to break away and set up an “Islamic” state, the security forces have retained control over the situation in a manner that proved impossible for the Soviets in the 1980s and for the NATO forces during 2003-2010.

After 9/11 and even more so after 26/11 (the 2008 Mumbai terror attack) ,the international community has sharply reduced the pressure on India to give concessions to the militants, pressure that even in the hostile circumstances of the 1990s wasrejected. However, during the first term of the UPA ( 2004-2009), Sonia Gandhi ensured that a soft policy got carried out,that included the giving of a flood of visas to citizens from Pakistan.All that ended after 26/11,when it became clear that public opinion was getting inflamed by such a policy,and that there was a risk of mass demonstrations outside 10,Janpath,the official residence of Sonia Gandhi.Today,even Pervez Musharraf has been denied a visa to enter India,despite the strong support he has from his admirer Hillary Clinton. In his newfound appreciation of the need to keep politicking away from governance,Prime Minister Singh has changed course on Pakistan, moving away from the soft line favoured by Sonia Gandhi’s confidant Wajahat Habibullah. However,Home Minister Chidambaram still takes orders from 10 Janpath, which is why he is enthusiastically backing Omar Abdullah in his attempt to get back into the India-retained part of Kashmir those who had left for Pakistan for training in insurgency from 1989 onwards. Security agencies fret that such a policy would give fresh oxygen to an insurgency that has been under control for long,thereby once again launching a cycle of violence in the Valley and perhaps in the entire state. It remains to be seen whether Omar Abdullah will get his way and bring back the militants who escaped into Pakistan. Once such individuals return,public opinion in India is likely to once again get inflamed against a government that is so cavalier about core national security interests. In particular,Home Minister Chidambaram and Chief Minister Abdullah will share with CP Sonia Gandhi the blame for replicating Sheikh Abdullah’s disastrous ( for the Indian Union) policy of “right of return” of those who have gone to Pakistan. Because of his soft line on Kashmir,the Home Minister has lost much of his credibility as an individual able and willing to stand up for the national interest over considerations of politicking.

Those who argue against a soft policy point out that the continuance of tensions with India is costing Pakistan about 5% in its rate of growth.Or,in other words,the country could develop twice as fast should it have good relations with India,while for India,the effect of a hostile Pakistan is much less severe in view of its bigger and more diversified economy. There is no way that Pakistan can have a strong military without a strong economy,so it is believed that within the officer corps of the Pakistan military – an institiution that in many respects is outstanding and worthy of respect and emulation – there must be those aware of the need for better ties with India. Aware that there is no way any democratic government in India can make significant concessions in Kashmir and survive. The best case scenario is for both countries to go through a phased normalisation of relations.Once there is no mutual threat from each other, boundaries can be made more “soft”,the way it has been in the EU. Someday,there may emerge a South asia Federation that comprises Nepal,the Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh,with zero border controls and a collective growth rate of 10%. That is what needs to be the future of a region that is the home of so many great cultures and good people.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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