After Indian election, relationship with Pakistan back in focus

May 17, 2009

After a diplomatic pause enforced by India’s lengthy election campaign, the country will soon have a new government after the ruling Congress party won an unexpectedly decisive victory.  But analysts doubt the change of government will bring a significant change of heart in India towards Pakistan.

Despite Pakistan’s offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley, they say India has yet to be convinced the Pakistan Army is ready to crack down more widely on Islamist militants, fearing instead that it will selectively go after some groups, while leaving others like the Afghan Taliban and Kashmir-oriented groups alone.  While Pakistan wants to resume talks broken off by New Delhi after last November’s attack on Mumbai, India has said it wants Islamabad to take more action first against those behind the assault, which it blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is expected to remain in office after the Congress election victory, is now likely to come under pressure from the United States to soften India’s stance towards Pakistan.  The current stand-off leaves both countries vulnerable to a fresh flare-up of tensions which could torpedo Washington’s plans for Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also complicates U.S. efforts to persuade the Pakistan Army to move troops from the Indian border to fight Taliban militants on its western border with Afghanistan.

So how will Singh respond?

Indian analysts are already arguing India must stand up to U.S. pressure to ensure its own interests are not sacrificed to those of the United States. In an editorial in the Times of India, Brahma Chellaney writes that U.S. policy — very much focused on Afghanistan — now runs counter to Indian interests. He argues that Kashmir-oriented groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are of little interest to the United States. “Instead, Washington intends to goad New Delhi post-election to reduce border troop deployments, a step that would help Pakistan to infiltrate more armed terrorists into India.”

It may not be entirely correct to say that Washington is not interested in the Lashkar-e-Taiba.  The group was cited in media reports as a suspect in the London underground bombings in 2005, potentially making it as much of a global threat as al Qaeda. But Chellaney’s comments do underline a traditional suspicion in the region – both in India and Pakistan — about what is seen as a ruthless U.S. focus on its own interests.

In an editorial in The Hindu former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar says India must galvanise its regional diplomacy, rebuilding its once close relationship with Russia and Iran, to strengthen its hand. But he also writes that, “certainly, resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan ought to be a priority.”

The other question to ask is whether Pakistan and India would both be better off talking to each other directly, rather than churning their arguments through the prism of U.S. diplomacy. According to some analysts the two countries came close to a breakthrough on Kashmir in 2007 — a subject explored at length by Steve Coll in the New Yorker in March – but were unable to close the deal after then President Pervez Musharraf became embroiled in political problems that eventually forced him to step down last year.  There has been no official confirmation, and the two countries have come close to agreements on other issues before only to see them fall apart on disagreement about the exact terms.

President Barack Obama has so far been a leader in a hurry. His energetic special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, earned a reputation for being able to bang heads together after he brokered the Dayton peace accords in 1995.  How far can, and will, the U.S. administration go to persuade India and Pakistan to talk peace?  And equally importantly, how well will India and Pakistan manage the U.S. administration?

(Photos: Congress party supporters celebrate in Allahabad; Congress leader Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh)

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