IT'S a classic South Asian contradiction: as one country swears in its democratically-elected cabinet, generals across the border launch a coup. Flushed with a win at the polls and still basking in the summer's Kargil victory, a new, confident bjp-led government lands its first major challenge: one that has nothing to do with economic problems but concerns dealing with a demoralised Pakistani army-led by an angry hardliner, chief of army staff Gen Pervez Musharraf, whose overthrow of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has plunged the country into uncertainty.
Will India find it difficult to interact with the man who's come to be called The Butcher of Kargil? Not necessarily, says a senior bjp official. "India shouldn't rule out talks with whoever is in power there." But on Friday night, the government virtually negated the possibility of immediate talks, expressing concern over Pakistan being "effectively under martial law".
Former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit thinks Pakistan's offer of talks after the coup is just a "tactical move to reassure the rest of the world not to worry, that things are getting back to normal". Adds B.G. Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research: "They're sending a signal not necessarily to us but to the world community that just because the generals have taken over, it has not made the place more unsafe."However, says a senior government official, if the army coup took place partly because of the army's dissatisfaction with Sharif's wilting under international pressure over Kargil, then the new army rule is likely to take a more confrontational stand with India. Dixit agrees. "Musharraf is a hardliner. He has to be taken care of-we should deal with him, but we should make it clear to him that if he indulges in the same sort of adventurousness as he did in Kargil, then he'll be dealt with even more decisively than before." It's generally understood that it was fundamentalist religious elements in the Pakistani army led by Musharraf with the tacit support of senior retired officers who initiated the Kargil operation.
The coup though, thinks Dixit, hasn't worsened the security environment in the region. "In terms of the nuclear bomb," he says, "things are as uncertain as they were before-not more or less." Even the US, which knows of Musharraf's long-standing links with several Islamic fundamentalist groups, is reluctant to isolate Pakistan at this juncture. While stressing the need for a return to democracy, it has communicated to the world press their belief that there's been no change in who controls the nuclear button in Pakistan.
It took the world community all of two years to approach Zia-ul-Haq after he took over the reigns in '77. Pakistan-watchers stress that India must remain vigilant. "What's the rush to decide what India is going to do? Why are we in such a great hurry?" asks analyst C. Rajamohan. His thoughts are echoed by Maj Gen (rtd) Afsir Karim. "As it is we were not eager to rush into talks due to the problem of cross-border terrorism," he says, referring to fears being voiced in India that Musharraf might be inclined to step up cross-border terrorism. But, says the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, P.R. Chari, the price of such a decision would be huge. "I've been speaking to many Pakistanis in the last month and they all say that Musharraf is as concerned as the next person about the country's collapsing economy. He's therefore under the influence of the imf loan and the Americans. So it's highly unlikely that while he goes around the world with a begging bowl he'll risk more global condemnation by increasing terrorism on different fronts. It does not make any sense."Whatever the outcome, Verghese does not believe for one minute that India should wait forever for a return to democracy in Pakistan before resuming talks. "We should try and promote a dialogue if we feel the other party is able to deliver." Jairam Ramesh of the Congress feels that India's approach should be cold-blooded: "We must restart the Lahore process irrespective of whoever is in power. It is very important to pass the MoUs on confidence-building measures and to reduce missile proliferation."Unlike the West, a return to democracy should not be India's demand on Pakistan at this time, say some analysts. "If we refused to talk to tinpot Asian dictators, we wouldn't be talking to half the world," says Verghese. "The US may be worried about the future of democracy in Pakistan but we have to live with these neighbours." Dixit agrees. "We do not like to see democracy suffering in the region of course, but we should not make a song and dance about another country's democracy problems. Let the Pakistanis deal with that internal problem." The Communists are among the few who differ with this approach. "Although India and Pakistan should continue with trying to have a dialogue, I have serious apprehensions in the absence of a popularly elected government," says cpi secretary D. Raja. "How does one negotiate with a military ruler? I don't know." And we perhaps never will till the dialogue process actually starts.