Degrees of irresponsibility

On national security, Congress pusillanimity, BJP opportunism and AAP anarchism.

The Aam Aadmi Party's controversial foray into Kashmir affairs and the BJP's continuing attacks on the UPA government's foreign policy last week do not bode well for India's national security at a critical moment in domestic politics and great uncertainty in the international environment.

The call for a referendum in Kashmir on the presence of the army there by Prashant Bhushan, a senior leader of the AAP, shows how unready the party is for the big stage. The problem is not that Bhushan has his foot in his mouth. After all, this is not the first time he has stirred up a controversy on Kashmir. In 2011, he had reportedly suggested that a plebiscite should decide whether Kashmir should be part of India. The worry is about the party's facile understanding of the national security challenges in Kashmir.

The army has been deployed in Kashmir since the end of the 1980s for a specific reason — to cope with the extraordinary threat to the nation's territorial integrity accentuated by cross-border terrorism aided by the Pakistan army. The AAP seems to forget that J&K's accession to the Union of India is contested by Pakistan and parts of this frontier state are under the occupation of Pakistan and China.

Yet, it is not out of place for a political party to raise questions about the nature, disposition, and effectiveness of the army's large scale deployment in Kashmir for nearly a quarter of a century. Instead of responsibly initiating what could have been a useful national debate, however, the AAP has raised a highly sensitive issue in a cavalier manner. As a new political formation that has captured the nation's imagination in a short span of time, the AAP might be excused for its innocence on national security.

The BJP, in power during 1998-2004, has no such redeeming explanation for its churlish attitude towards national security. Consider, for example, the party's reaction to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's comments on the foreign policy record of the UPA government at a press conference last Friday.

The BJP's criticism of the PM's statement that India was in sight of a breakthrough with Pakistan and its questioning of the terms of the UPA's Kashmir negotiations with Islamabad are breathtaking in their cynicism.

It is well known that Atal Bihari Vajpayee authorised negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir, for the first time since 1963, through a back channel, immediately after the NDA came to power in 1998. Interlocutors on the Pakistani side have affirmed that these discussions took place on the basis of the so-called "Chenab formula" that would have involved some territorial concessions.

The veteran journalist, Kuldip Nayar, reported in his book, Scoop (published in 2006), that Vajpayee had told him India and Pakistan "were almost there" in clinching a Kashmir settlement during 1998-99. Pakistan's Kargil betrayal in 1999 and the failed Agra Summit with Pervez Musharraf in 2001 did not stop Vajpayee, who understood the utmost importance of regional peace and reconciliation.

Vajpayee's persistence eventually bore fruit in January 2004, when he hammered out a balanced framework of bilateral engagement with Pakistan and authorised the Kashmir talks in an environment free of terror. The back channel talks were led by the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and Musharraf's aide, Tariq Aziz.

After the BJP lost power in 2004, the UPA government chose to build on Vajpayee's initiative. The new national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, took charge of the process and after his untimely death in January 2005, Satinder Lambah took over.

The contours of this negotiation between Lambah and Aziz, which took place during 2005-07, came out in dribs and drabs. Two features of the negotiations under the UPA, however, were widely known in Delhi's corridors.

One, unlike the talks in Vajpayee's first term around the Chenab formula, there would be no Indian territorial concessions in Kashmir. Two, the draft agreement did not violate the Constitution of India, the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, and the 1994 parliamentary resolution on Kashmir.

The BJP's demand this week that the PM must reveal the terms of this negotiation is indeed hypocritical. As a ruling party in waiting, the BJP should know that if sensitive negotiations are not held in secret, there will be no agreements to sign in public. The Vajpayee government, then, rightly did not make public the framework of its Kashmir talks with Pakistan.

The problem with the current BJP leadership, however, goes much deeper. Whether it was the nuclear deal with the United States or the negotiations with Pakistan and Bangladesh, the BJP in opposition has put tactical considerations above the national interest by trashing initiatives that it had launched with the US and Pakistan when in power.

The BJP's cynicism was reflected in its leaders reportedly telling external interlocutors, sotto voce, that they would not let the Congress take the credit for the historic initiatives; they would rather claim it themselves after returning to power.

The Congress party, however, deserves an even greater share of the blame for the current foreign policy mess. The party's fear of bold strategic initiatives and the PM's reluctance to make the political case for them saw the squandering of rare strategic opportunities that presented themselves to Delhi over the last decade.

The Congress party's political pusillanimity and the BJP's endless opportunism are now being compounded by the AAP's anarchism.

The Indian political classes, both old and new, are gravely mistaken if they think national security is fair game in the elections and the contest for power at home can be conducted without reference to the world outside.

With the Delhi Durbar at its weakest in decades and the national parties in a funk, India's ability to deal with externally induced challenges in the run-up to the elections and after is being undermined by an irresponsible domestic discourse.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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