Speaking softly, but gripping a big stick

New Delhi is not rejoicing over Pakistan's misfortune, for military rule may encourage Islamic militants
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The Independent Online

ndia's first reaction to the coup in Pakistan was an alarmed "I am appalled" from the external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. The Indian armed forces were reported to be on full alert. By the next day the normally suave Mr Singh, a former army officer himself, had cooled down. He told reporters he knew nothing about the army being on full alert. "I don't think Pakistan will attack us, I don't think they will use their nuclear power against us," he said.

ndia's first reaction to the coup in Pakistan was an alarmed "I am appalled" from the external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. The Indian armed forces were reported to be on full alert. By the next day the normally suave Mr Singh, a former army officer himself, had cooled down. He told reporters he knew nothing about the army being on full alert. "I don't think Pakistan will attack us, I don't think they will use their nuclear power against us," he said.

Not every Indian is as sanguine as Jaswant Singh. Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, is known in India as "the architect of Kargil". He is believed to have sold the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the idea of sending Pakistani soldiers and Islamic militants trained by the army across the line of control in Kashmir to occupy the mountains above the town of Kargil. The falling out between Nawaz Sharif and his chief of army staff seems to have started with the decision to withdraw these forces. That was seen in Pakistan as a humiliating surrender, with terms dictated to Nawaz Sharif by President Clinton.

Rubbing the Pakistan army's nose in it, the ruling party in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, hailed their prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as the victor of Kargil. In the election campaign completed earlier this month the avuncular Mr Vajpayee beamed from posters and pamphlets, advertisements and every page of the party's manifesto, with his right hand raised in the V for Victory sign. There are fears in India that General Musharraf will want to take revenge for Kargil.

Two military analysts I have spoken to, both recently retired Indian generals, believe it is highly unlikely that Musharraf will mount an open attack, or even try another covert operation. One of the purposes of Kargil appears to have been to test the battle-preparedness of the Indian army. After some initial mistakes it showed it was capable of fighting and winning under extremely adverse conditions. General Musharraf now knows that any intrusion in Kashmir will be fiercely resisted; the last thing he wants is another military setback. The analysts also believe the nuclear balance of power between the two countries will restrain rather than encourage the general.

Pakistan, a narrow strip of land, much, much smaller than India, totally dominated by one province, would be bound to come off much worse in any nuclear conflict.

There is scope to step up the battle being fought by Islamic militants inside Indian-administered Kashmir. Their guerrilla war has been going on for nine years. Nawaz Sharif did not want his support for the militants to be so open that it would add to pressure on the US to condemn Pakistan as a nation which supported terrorism.

General Musharraf is already in the international dog-house, so he may not feel so restrained by diplomatic considerations. He knows it is very difficult for the Indian army to prevent small guerrilla groups crossing the line of control, and he knows how popular such militants are with the Islamic groups in Pakistan who back his coup.

India is upbeat about the diplomatic consequences of the coup. It will certainly damage Pakistan's campaign for international mediation to resolve the Kashmir issue ­ something India rigidly opposes. It will also reduce the pressure on India to open talks with Pakistan. But India hopes for more than that. India feels, with considerable justification, that ever since independence America has seen Pakistan as its natural ally in South Asia. Recently, however, India and the US have been coming closer together. Ironically India's nuclear explosion has helped rather than hindered in this because it started a long dialogue between Jaswant Singh and the US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbot. The coup will strengthen India's submission that Pakistan is a rogue nation, promoting terrorism, militant Islam and the trade in narcotics.

The day after General Musharraf's coup Mr Vajpayee was sworn in again as prime minister. The Times of India had a cartoon showing that ceremony on one side and Pakistani generals lifting prime minister Nawaz Sharif from his chair on the other side. The title was "Sworn in, sworn out". India can expect that message to go home in America, too.

Sober Indians, however, are not rejoicing over Pakistan's discomfort. They know that India stands to lose from an unstable neighbour. They remember the encouragement terrorists in Punjab received from Pakistan during the last military regime. With the links between General Musharraf's army and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamisation of Pakistan may well take on a new and more threatening shape. India, with not just the Kashmir issue, but a vast Muslim population spread throughout the country, will then be under threat.

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