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The craft and the aircraft

The debate on the latest turn in India-US relations has moved between two extremes: from the US again betraying us with the offer of F-16s t...

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
April 2, 2005

The debate on the latest turn in India-US relations has moved between two extremes: from the US again betraying us with the offer of F-16s to Pakistan, on the one hand, to the juicy prospect of the sole superpower helping India become a world power. There is also a third position, that of the Left intellectuals, that all this, F-16s to Pakistan, the offer of F-18s and more to India, is nothing but an old-style American plot to destabilise the subcontinent and to trap us in an arms race.

All three are ludicrous. The first comes from the lazy, old-fashioned Indian mindset of avoiding any complexities. The second comes from a new, post-Cold War and post-reform Pravasi Bharati type gung-ho approach that is incapable of seeing any complexities, or even absurdities like a nation thinking of becoming a world power with the help of a superpower! The third is, well, exactly what you would expect from the Left-liberal mind. Innocent, cute, outdated.

The real and larger picture is more complex and interesting. The Rice visit and the F-16 offer merely signify the launching of a larger game-plan in the region to rewrite power equations. The situation today is essentially different from the two such junctures in the past when the US supplied arms to Pakistan. In the early sixties, Pakistan was a closer ally than even now and a frontier state in the war against communism while India was drifting to the rival camp. Later, when the F-16s were given the first time in 1983, the justification was the Afghan war against the same communist enemy in whose camp India was now seen even more clearly to belong. Then there was no word of comfort, compensation, not even an explanation to India. Today there is a counter-offer and public statements of wishing to help India rise to becoming a big power. Not only is India no longer seen as an antagonist, it is hailed as a major friendly power.

The F-16s are only one more step in a strategy the Bush administration devised and is slowly unfolding since 9/11. Its broad principles are, stabilise Pakistan as a moderate Islamic, even if partially democratic nation, prevent a war in the subcontinent and take the relationship with India to a much higher level. The complication is, to stabilise Pakistan and to strengthen Musharraf you need to give modern weapons to his really outdated armies, which also happen to be his central power-base, and that upsets Indian public opinion. To take relations with India to a higher plane, you have to engage with it on an entirely different plane of tech transfers, strategic cooperation and that makes the Pakistanis fidgety.

Can a big power be friends with two bitter antagonists, supply military hardware to both and yet nudge them successfully towards peace? The Middle East is a good enough precedent from not so long ago. The US supplied arms to both Israel and Egypt and also made sure they were of no threat to each other any longer. There are parallels in that situation and the subcontinent, and there are many important differences. Both Egypt and Israel were happy to have a mediator. Here India loathes the very suggestion of mediation. Governments in both Israel and Egypt relied on Washington heavily for survival. Here Washington shares that equation only with Musharraf.

But this possibility has been explored and assessed for several years now. At a very small and select dinner shortly after 9/11 a top US official — who has risen to a much higher level since — had talked to some of us in detail about the state of Pakistan’s armed forces, of how they drove ancient tanks, flew low-tech planes and hardly had a navy. No army, particularly one that controls political power, can carry on like that, he said. The discussion then moved into what the US could get in return if it looked after that particular need of Pakistan’s ruling junta. Could the US do a Sadat with Musharraf, plying his armed forces with the most modern weaponry, while ensuring at the same time that it was no longer to be any threat to Israel? The official smiled mysteriously and said that Washington could probably think about it, but was there enough intellect in the Indian political system to understand that in these cases “hardware usually precedes compliance”? What he meant was, the Indian side tends to react so apoplectically to any arms sales to Pakistan that nobody was sure it would give the time for such a strategy to work. Frankly, we are still not sure whether the F-16s mark the unfolding of that strategy but our top leadership’s reaction has been mature, understated, and in every way fitting the temperament of a major, confident and secure state.

He made another another important point that evening. He said India ought to be seriously concerned about the future of Pakistan. Why don’t you focus on what kind of Pakistan you could have in 2020: a nation of 250 million with a per capita income much lower than yours, literacy rate half of yours, a drying river-water system, dead industry, fundamentalism and nuclear weapons? He said it was a nightmare that he worried about in Washington but whenever he raised it with the Indian government he was told instead about “another 16 infiltrators that came into Poonch last week”. His point was, the central plank of Bush’s engagement with Musharraf was not so much to find Osama but to prevent that 2020 nightmare. He said only a combination of Washington and Musharraf could do so. But only if India got the big picture. Happily, it does seem now that nearly two years after Atal Bihari Vajpayee signalled de-escalation at his April 2003 speech in Srinagar, Manmohan Singh is willing to take that risk.

Musharraf will be in Delhi in a fortnight and even though it is a far cry from Camp David, the peace process will enter a new phase. Mediation is still an absolute no-no in this equation but it is now becoming quite evident that both 9/11 and irresponsible nuclear noises after the Parliament attack have globalised the subcontinent’s blood feud and, whether we admit it or not, the rest of the world, firmly represented by the US in this case, now has a strong stake in the peace process. Washington cannot mediate, but, after the summer of 2002 when Rumsfeld and Powell ran ferries to help prevent war, has laid down firm parameters within which a new India-Pakistan relationship can evolve. At the minimum this entails preventing (not allowing?) a war at any cost. At its maximalist application, it is expected to lead to durable peace and a mutually accepted settlement and it will be lubricated and bank-rolled with cash and kind. This giant wheel of change is now turning. F-16s and 18s are merely small cogs in it.

Write to sg@expressindia.com

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