The honeymoon was not over yet,the Indian diplomatic establishment was still basking in self-congratulation for isolating Pakistan on Kargil. Then the Atlantique affair happened. It came as a rude shock. The world, which was till recently showering high praise on India for the restraint it showed in Kargil, wasn't willing to extend unconditional support this time.
Criticism by any country other than the US wouldn't have mattered much. With American support on Kargil behind it, even the mild criticism by US spokesman James Rubin appeared to bother the Indians. The saving grace for New Delhi was that Rubin was critical of Islamabad too, while apportioning the greater part of the blame on India for shooting down the plane. While India tried to play this down, Lt Gen (retd) V.R. Raghavan of the Delhi Policy Group countered: It's a significant development. It's a change from the trend after Kargil, where the US saw India as the wronged country. Adds a western diplomat, Pakistan kept the pot boiling by attacks on army bases and acts of terrorism in the northeast. But intrusions are one thing, shooting down a plane quite another. She says she wouldn't be surprised if there's more criticism from the rest of the world soon. That's what the Indians fret about. Washington sets a trend for the rest to follow.
The reverberations could be felt around the world. It once again focused attention on a nuclearised South Asia. Stephen Cohen, of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, warns of the consequences, What strikes me is that on the one hand, both countries are basically boasting about their successes,for domestic consumption. And for the outside world, both say they have been victims of aggression. India, of course, feels uneasy with too much attention on this part of the world. Says Maj Gen Afsir Karim (retd), member of the National Security Council advisory board: What the world fails to realise is that with tensions so high, with all this military deployment, such incidents are bound to recur. Karim believes that even if the diplomatic fallout goes against India, it will only be a temporary slide.
The Pakistani reaction was naturally one of anger. Its leaders termed the Atlantique's downing an act of cowardice and cold-blooded murder and promised an appropriate response. They went on a diplomatic and media blitzkrieg. But as the wreckage of the Atlantique hit the ground, diplomacy deserted South Block. Leaving only silence. This was variously interpreted: that South Block mandarins had something to hide. Or perhaps, they were waiting to be briefed by the military. Or still, that they were totally flummoxed. Whatever the reasons, their silence was infectious. We couldn't write our reports from Delhi to our capitals, while our missions in Islamabad sent in theirs within a few hours of the air attack, complains one western diplomat. These days, two or three days is a long time, he adds. Another diplomat says the lack of transparency on India's part has only hurt its case because while statements from Pakistan were being broadcast the world over, India's point of view just became an add-on.
Indians then tied themselves up in knots. Defence minister George Fernandes went on the TV, saying the plane was shot down after it turned threateningly towards an Indian fighter. Two days later another version emerged, by compulsion. For, it was revealed that the Pakistani plane was trying to head back into its airspace, refusing to land under instructions from the Indian fighters, when it was shot down. Indians insisted the plane had crashed in Indian territory. But a day later, principal secretary Brajesh Mishra revealed that most of the debris, along with the 16 bodies, was in fact inside Pakistan. Senior Indian officials were privately critical of Fernandes for putting out the wrong version. This issue should have been left to the air chief or the official defence ministry spokesman, said an official. Information warfare, clearly, is not the Indian establishment's strong point.
Video footage of people scurrying back and forth with pieces of wreckage raised eyebrows and aroused many questions. Who were they? Why were they running scared? There were no answers. Besides, the attempt to prove Pakistani intrusion was rather crude, with parts of the fuselage brought to Delhi to be displayed before the press and political leaders. It was rather funny and very confusing, says a diplomat. European diplomats too were bemused by this curious mix of caginess and clumsy, over-eager attempts to build their case. By being secretive about the reasons for shooting down the Atlantique, you're in danger of losing sympathy, says a senior diplomat.
But not all agree. I don't think a single incident will provide a great deal of mileage to Pakistan or that it will overturn the world reaction to Kargil, says one diplomat. Other Indian analysts echo these thoughts. Says Amitabh Mattoo, of jnu: This won't lead to Pakistan occupying the high moral ground. Mattoo sees it as a Catch 22 situation for the world,where it would like to show concern for the dangerous subcontinental politics, but does not want to be seen as rewarding brinkmanship.
While most diplomats believe Pakistan did violate Indian airspace, that the plane was on a spying mission and that India probably abided by all the procedures before firing on the airplane, they're a bit suspicious about whether it warranted firing. After all, incursions have taken place in the past,India has told us so,so why did they fire this time? Was it something to do with the fact that elections are so close? asks one. This one act could escalate an already tense situation. But opinions fluctuate. Says another diplomat, If there have been repeated air incursions, you have to ask how long can India allow this to go on? Where do you draw the line?
In London, Paul Beaver, the South Asia specialist at Jane's Defence Group, voiced the general opinion: Questions may be raised about the legality of the Indian military action. But Washington and Beijing are likely to prevail upon Nawaz Sharif to cool it. Under such pressure Pakistan might resort to some beating of drums but not launch a military counter-attack, he said. But much will depend on Sharif's position within Pakistan. The prime minister of Pakistan is not always the strongest leader there is.