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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2002

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A subcontinent to watch

`FRAGILE: Handle with care' may well be the label to be affixed on the situation in the Indian subcontinent following the just-concluded elections in Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan.

At no time in the past have there been so many imponderables. Never before has the need for statesmanship been so very compelling for policy-makers in both India and Pakistan.

It is not simply that they should be bold enough to discard the fixations of the past; they should equally be resilient enough to think beyond the dot and out of the box, if they have to make any headway in resolving issues plaguing the two countries for as long as one can remember.

The alternative is stark and staring in the face. Any dragging of the feet, or closing one's eyes to problems hoping that they would thereby go away, or playing the same old broken gramophone record on both sides will only result in a big and unseemly mess. The industrial countries are already showing signs of getting thoroughly fed up with what must seem to them a never-ending nuisance in this part of the world distracting them from their own myriad woes. The only thought of unilateralist US is for itself, and its fulminations against Mr Saddam Hussein and Iraq serve as a warning as to what to expect when it gets into a psychotic fit.

Already, India has been having a taste of hardening of their stand. Harping on cross-border terrorism as a way of keeping them at bay has begun to rile them. Canada has demanded that India should "immediately'' start a dialogue with Pakistan. The European Union, speaking for its 16 members, gave a lecture or two on the importance of a settlement with Pakistan to the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the External Affairs Minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, to their faces when they were recently in Brussels.

Other countries too have been making statements, as of now guardedly, putting the onus for the first move on India.

The US has so far been cautious, but this has to do less with any great respect it has for India's susceptibilities and more with its preoccupation with preparations for bringing about "regime change'' in Iraq. Once it accomplishes its purpose there, it will turn to the subcontinent with all the laser-like attention it is capable of.

All the more so because elections to the national and state assemblies in Pakistan have given a shot in the arm to pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda desperadoes.

In order to help the Pakistani dictator to deal with them single-mindedly, the US may well consider it good strategy to get Kashmir out of the way as an aggravating factor.

Which means turning the heat ever more searingly on India. Like it or not, in the eyes of the US and its cohorts, Pakistan is a rightful disputant no matter how free and fair the elections in J&K and how high the poll percentage.

The Government, therefore, has to make up its mind on an approach that will at once be credible and flexible.

One hopes that the National Security Council, the National Security Advisory Board and the Strategic Policy Group meeting today under the PM's chairmanship would have worked out the choices and fallback positions with these considerations in mind.

B. S. Raghavan

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