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June 2, 1999


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Can Kargil bring about new direction in Indo-US relations?

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Seema Sirohi in Washington

Firing at Kargil The muddled public relations strategy from New Delhi on Kargil shows once again that Indian officials may be behind the curve on how to deal with a world where perception counts for as much as policy.

It took nearly three weeks for Indian politicians to decide to tell the world what was happening in Kargil despite the clarity of the situation. Once they did, there was no overall strategy -- at least one that was discernible -- to build the case for India. Even though the army and the air force are doing a creditable job of briefings and sharing information, a much more aggressive stance is needed if India is to influence perceptions abroad which are built on years of Cold War calculations that equate India and Pakistan, analysts say.

The Prime Minister's Office and the ministry of external affairs are yet to take a decision on whether to make public evidence of reconnaissance photographs, key maps and intercepts which can show how well-equipped the infiltrators are. A special effort needs to be made to take Western journalists to the area because their writings are important in influencing public opinion abroad, Indian diplomats say.

The Indian government has not shared the post-mortem report of the pilot who was shot down in cold blood, a piece of evidence that can help build the case. "Presuming that the world will understand our point of view is not enough. We have to get ahead and share information with the press," said an Indian diplomat in the US capital.

A well-informed analyst expressed deep frustration about the "political paralysis" in New Delhi and the ill-considered remarks from senior members of the government on television. The slow and haphazard response from New Delhi has affected the strategy in Indian missions abroad.

Lobbyists employed by India began contacting Capitol Hill in earnest on Kargil only last week when the two Indian planes were shot down. The first meeting between the Indian envoy in Washington and his counterpart in the State Department on the Kargil conflict took place last week even though they are in touch by telephone. It is not clear whether Ambassador Naresh Chandra was able to give the American side concrete "evidence" of the infiltration in the shape of photographs.

But Chandra did make a strong presentation in his meeting with Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, by raising questions about how the infiltrators got there in the first place. He reportedly made the case that this operation was a well-planned move where the "mercenaries" were supplied with snow-mobiles, artillery and sophisticated communications equipment. Intercepts have indicated the militants are speaking to army officers on the other side.

Despite India's slow reaction, Western governments have responded positively and taken India's side. In a welcome departure from the past, the Clinton administration took a strong position on the Kargil incursion and for the first time there was open acknowledgment that the militants are supported, supplied and sustained by Pakistan.

The official American lexicon appears to be changing and the reticence about taking sides seems to be withering. State Department and Pentagon spokesmen have repeatedly used the terms "Pakistan-connected" and "infiltrators from Pakistan" when commenting on the conflict. Even though the need to exercise restraint is the primary message in public, diplomatic communications have left no doubt as to who is in the wrong, well-informed sources say.

Senior US officials have supported India's right to expel the infiltrators and not raised their favourite fear of Kashmir being a nuclear flashpoint. In fact, spokesman have pointedly talked against the possibility of a nuclear exchange despite being pressed by Western reporters.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief and reportedly read him the riot act. First the protocol snub -- it wasn't President Bill Clinton calling Sharief but his foreign minister, so to say. It was a change from last year when Clinton was on the phone to Sharief no less than four times, urging him not to conduct nuclear tests. Disappointed and outraged by the Pakistani leadership's inability to act in a mature manner, US officials have decided to call a spade a spade even in public.

Inderfurth, the key official dealing with the crisis in the State Department, said clearly that the "Indians are not going to cede this territory" and the militants must leave. "They have to depart, either voluntarily or because the Indians take them out," he told The New York Times. Rarely has the United States been so blunt on an India-Pakistan issue, specially one relating to Kashmir.

And if there was any doubt left in Islamabad as it reads the tea leaves, State Department Spokesman James Rubin laid it to rest by saying there was no change in the US policy on Kashmir. The bottomline remains that India and Pakistan must sort out the dispute bilaterally and peacefully. The sub-text: Forget about the United Nations.

This crucial pro-India stand taken by the Clinton Administration is an important signal to New Delhi and its foreign policy elite. If India plays its diplomatic cards well, Kargil could become a seminal turning point in its often rocky relationship with the United States. It could be a solid building block in developing a more trusting, mature relationship with the world's sole superpower.

Indian diplomats can seize the opportunity to reduce the rancour and mistrust that engulfed bilateral relations after last May's nuclear tests by responding to the signal, analysts say. They can start a new phase by setting aside the often knee-jerk suspicions.

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