Monday, December 08, 2008

no fanning the flames

India avoids lashing out at Pakistan and its own Muslims after the Mumbai attacks.

Jason Overdorf and Sudip Mazumdar
From the magazine issue dated Dec 15, 2008

Most people probably expected the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai to lead to another showdown between India and Pakistan. After all, the last time Islamic militants carried out such a major attack, on Delhi in 2001, the Indian government massed troops on the Pakistani border. Now as then, evidence suggests that the militants were trained and equipped by groups operating in Pakistan. And to dampen the flames, Washington has so far done little more than suggest that Islamabad cooperate with the Indian investigation and crack down on suspects.

Last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region, thousands of Indians did take to the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and other cities to protest. Yet while there were a few scattered chants of "Death to Pakistan," the marchers, who carried roses, candles and posters, directed most of the ire not at India's perennial enemy, the terrorists, or the ruling Congress party. Their anger was reserved for India's politicians in general. The protesters' slogan: "Enough is enough."

The marchers had plenty to be mad about. According to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, India has suffered more than 4,000 terrorist attacks since 1970, with an average of about one killing per day. But India's leaders have taken little action to protect the population, even while ensuring themselves heavy security. The government also appeared clueless in the face of the Mumbai attacks and took hours to respond.

Yet there's been remarkably little jingoism in the overall reaction. India's leaders, its media and its population—even the far right—have largely rejected the kind of anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric the terrorists must have hoped for. This forbearance won't last forever, especially if Pakistan fails to cooperate with India's demand for a crackdown on militants. But for the time being, India is surprising many Western observers—and even some Indian ones—by maintaining a resolute calm and refusing to rattle its saber.

Despite comparisons in the Indian media, the nation's reaction so far to "26/11" has differed profoundly from America's response to 9/11, Spain's to 3/11 or London's to 7/7. Indians have neither rallied round their leader and demanded he pull up the drawbridges, as Americans did to George W. Bush, nor rushed to throw out a bungling government, as the Spanish did to José María Aznar after he misled voters about the involvement of Basque separatists.

There have been no clashes between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Nor has there been a swing to embrace Hindu nationalism. Indeed, opposition politicians who have sought to capitalize on the mayhem have been roundly punished for it. For example, Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, rushed to Mumbai after the attacks to lionize the slain head of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad. But Mumbai denizens greeted Modi with boos and accused him of political opportunism.

The official response, meanwhile, has been studiously measured. India's home minister and both the chief minister of Maharashtra and his deputy have resigned. A review of India's intelligence system has begun and New Delhi has called on Pakistan to extradite 20 suspects. Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, has sent mixed messages in recent speeches, first ruling out military action against Pakistan and then, during Rice's visit, reversing tack and warning that India will use "all the means at [its] disposal." But overall, the government's behavior has been anything but warlike.

The reason, says Mahesh Rangarajan of Delhi University, is that "India has learned that a hysterical response does not serve any purpose." Experience shows that rash action only makes things worse. Congress party sources point out that massing troops on the border, as the BJP-led government did following terror attack on India's Parliament in December 2001, accomplished nothing—except to ensure that the BJP was roundly criticized for raising tensions. Senior government sources also admit that India can't behave like America did after 9/11 because India is "not a superpower and does not have that kind of capability," says a senior government official.

Out of necessity, then, New Delhi has turned to realpolitik. That's taken the form of "maintaining the pressure, getting the U.S. and other allies to put equal pressure on Pakistan without actually ratcheting up tension and weakening [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari's position too much," says a top official who asked to remain nameless because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.

In eschewing militarism, India is placing tremendous faith in the United States and the international community. Pundits, for example, have called on India to make its case against Pakistan at the U.N. Security Council. But this strategy is risky, for India will feel betrayed if the international or U.S. response remains tepid. And so far, the signals from Washington haven't been promising. Rice, on her visit to New Delhi, said that "there has to be direct and tough action," but she seemed—at least to Indians—to water down that message when she visited Islamabad.

Indians are already frustrated with Pakistan's behavior and its rejection of India's call to extradite the suspects. "What is disquieting is that the Pakistanis are resorting to a technical response by saying, 'Give us evidence and we will respond'," says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. "They're resorting to the old, stock responses, and that is sending a negative message and raising demands on the Indian side to hurt Pakistan."

Should this continue, domestic pressure will mount from the public, as well as the BJP and the radical Hindu nationalist right—especially with a national vote looming next year. The BJP will begin hammering Congress for its failure to stop terror, and if there is no action in Pakistan that, too, will come into play. "The BJP pitches its whole propaganda on that terrain," says Delhi-based political analyst Praful Bidwai.

For the time being, though, Indians are watching and waiting. The details of Rice's visit remain unclear. But unless she asked for and received quiet assurances that Islamabad intends to take some immediate, concrete steps, conditions could worsen for all parties, America included—after all, the terrorists who strike at India also work on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. As for India, if it feels that its forbearance has yielded nothing, this sense of betrayal could cause events to spiral out of control, bringing India and Pakistan—nuclear-armed nemeses—back to the brink once more.