India's PM too soft on Pakistan? Opposition says yes.

Opposition party members walk out of parliament over what they say is an unwarranted concession to Pakistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (r.) shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani during a meeting July 16.
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India's recent extension of an olive branch – more of a twig, really – to Pakistan is stirring strong political opposition at home and doing little to nudge Pakistan's military away from its focus on India as its primary security threat.

The United States has been hoping that tentative moves toward peace between the two nuclear-armed states would bring more cooperation from Pakistan on defeating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan. Pakistan might be persuaded that it could divert military resources from Kashmir, a territory that India and Pakistan have fought over for decades.

But a controversy that erupted in India this week shows how powerful the obstacles are to incremental progress, let alone ultimate solutions.

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani announced earlier this month that they had agreed to delink the issue of terrorism from the broader peace process between the two nations, a symbolically significant concession by India following a deadly attack on Mumbai in November that was carried out by Pakistani nationals.

But that has stirred an outcry against Mr. Singh at home, with political opponents saying he's being too soft on Pakistan. Members of the opposition BJP walked out of India's parliament on Thursday to register their anger on the matter, and BJP leader Yashwant Singh accused the prime minister on Wednesday of "walking into the Pakistan camp."

Pakistan apparently doesn't share the BJP's opinion. An unidentified Pakistani intelligence official told The New York Times shortly after the agreement was announced that India was still a major threat to his country and that "diverting troops from the border with India is out of the question."

The reaction in both country's serves as a reminder that behind Mr. Singh and Mr. Gilani lie powerbrokers opposed to a change in the status quo.

No breakthrough at hand

"Neither government is near a breakthrough on Kashmir," says Teresita Schaffer, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia. "Arguably, postelection, Manmohan Singh would be able to take a political solution public... although the dustup over the communiqué suggests he's going to have wait some while. But Pakistan isn't even close to doing that,'' she says.

Singh defended his position in parliament by explaining that dialogue with Pakistan was the only way forward, "unless we want to go to war."

He said that Pakistan had made some encouraging moves, including admitting that terrorists from a group based inside Pakistan carried out the Mumbai attacks: "Let me say that in the affairs of two neighbors we should recall what [US] President Reagan once said: trust but verify."

Dissent from an opposition party is to be expected, but "in the journalistic community and people who follow foreign affairs, and within the [ruling] party, there is growing unhappiness over this extraordinarily maladroit formulation," says Sumit Ganguly, a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

India's foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, admitted that the drafting of the agreement "could have been better."

The US has applied pressure on India to return to the negotiating table with Pakistan, partly in the hopes that the Pakistani military would redeploy troops from its eastern border with India to its western border with Afghanistan. It's also been trying to convince Pakistan that the Taliban, not India, are the major threat to its interests.

"I think that the US government is deluding itself on that score," says Ms. Schaffer. "The [Pakistani] Army now believes the Pakistani Taliban are a threat worth taking seriously. [But] I do not believe they consider that this in any way diminishes or puts into second place the threat from India."

Tempest in a teapot?

On one level, the controversial joint statement makes little practical difference. The next time the foreign secretaries of the two countries do sit down, "they are going to spend 97 percent of their time talking about [the attacks on] Mumbai," says Schaffer.

But the controversy reflects a deepened skepticism post-Mumbai among Indian experts about Pakistan's ability to move away from militancy.

"I've lost all faith in Pakistan" since the Mumbai attacks, says Dr. Ganguly. "It's a dysfunctional, pathological state which needs to be reconstructed from the ground up."

He says the main problem is that real power in Pakistan remains with the military, and the military leadership still views Islamic jihadis as useful tools of foreign policy.

But other experts see Singh's outreach less as a concession than a way to string Pakistan along.

"I think he feels conflict with Pakistan is useless because the balance is shifting in their favor and there's no sense getting in a conflict," says Hafeez Malik, a South Asia expert at Villanova University.

India's economy, he says, is developing so rapidly that India is just seeking a way to continue containing Pakistan and running out the clock, since a day will come when economic strength will translate into an unassailable military and diplomatic position.

Pakistan's senior military leaders know this, he says, and are desperate to get a favorable settlement on Kashmir before it's too late. Worries that the two countries might agree on the status quo may have prompted the Mumbai attacks, he says.

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