Terror threat: We have lost the plot
by M J Akbar
The ebb from outrage to rage, its decline to umbrage, and then a drift to amnesia is the narrative of the 12 months since the terrorist assault on Mumbai, which shook India and startled the world. America's immediate response to 9/11 was over the top; our phased reaction has been under-the-table. But a message went out from Washington: you provoke the US at your peril, no matter what the collateral damage. We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.
It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature. If it's warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well. It is meaningless to blame our Opposition. We have an Opposition that has become impotent without ever turning potent. The politician will only be as resolute as the citizen, and our sensitivities have been dulled by a culture of complacence. Even trauma has been reduced to television drama; once the scenes are played out, our bluster slowly splutters into silence.
It is possible that the military-intelligence-political establishment of Pakistan understands us far better than we understand them. They must have dismissed us as a soft state whose breast-beating is easily calmed by tokenism. On the first anniversary of 26/11, it is not Pakistan alone that is laughing at our weakness. Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player. This week, President Barack Obama used a communiqué in Beijing, of all capitals, to tell us where we stand in his estimation, as one of the nations of South Asia whose border problems the worldwide partnership of equals, US and China, would help sort out.
The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.
Obama did not have a word to say, incidentally, about Dr A Q Khan's latest revelations on Chinese help in fuel and technology for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, a clear instance of illegal proliferation. Do not be surprised, however, if India gets a lecture or two on nuclear proliferation.
War is not the only definition of strength. This fallacy has been promoted to disguise a policy of inaction. We have been cheated by this argument since it is obvious that war can have attendant consequences capable of deadly havoc. But there is a whole array or diplomatic and economic instruments that can be mobilized, nationally and internationally. We had the world's sympathy a year ago. We squandered it with inaction. Pakistan maneuvered its way out of international condemnation with some brilliantly painless promises. Islamabad bought the time that Delhi sold.
This week President Zardari presided over a meeting of the PPP's Central Executive Committee during which, in the words of Najam Sethi, an eminent Lahore editor, there was "a reassertion of Pakistan's maximalist position by both the prime minister and foreign minister on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute". This is probably a pre-emptive measure. Obama is likely to lean on Dr Manmohan Singh during the latter's visit to the White House, and push for a compromise on Kashmir acceptable to Pakistan. He might even wave a lollipop called a future seat in the Security Council as a distant prize for good behaviour.
Normalcy with Pakistan is a good idea: put me down as lead advocate of the band of peace missionaries. But before we seek normalcy, we must know what it means. Does it mean reward for unrepentant terrorism by post-Shimla Pact adjustments to the map of Jammu and Kashmir?
It used to be said that we do not have a foreign policy, just a Pakistan policy. We could have moved ahead; we may not even have a Pakistan policy now. We seem to indulge in a series of engagements with different nations, as if the world were an old-fashioned marketplace in which you could haggle your way through different shops, purchasing what was available at whatever price, without a coherent theme linking departure to destination.
Some politicians take recourse to fudge, and sell the notion of India as a soft power. This is a useful screen when you have turned the nation soft, instead of making it powerful. If we were in the midst of the Garden of Eden, this would have been laudable achievement. But we live in a region where terror haunts the headlines.
Amnesia is an invitation to the next terrorist assault.
Appeared in Times of India - November 22, 2009