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Mumbai cops' ISI charge is a political googly

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
October 03, 2006 14:14 IST
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The Mumbai police's charge that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence is involved in the July 11 Mumbai train blasts, in which 184 people were killed, has opened a new frontier in the various battles currently being waged across the political landscape: one, among the political parties; two, between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the Congress party; and three, between the intelligence establishment and the diplomatic community.

The fact that some state assemblies face an election in 2007 -– including politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat -- has added a complex dimension to the hotly debated issue of terrorism and Pakistan's alleged involvement.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's jointly laboured idea of a 'joint anti-terrorism institutional mechanism' is increasingly coming under sharper scrutiny.

The charge of ISI involvement in the Mumbai blasts has rejuvenated the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party's political campaign against the government's 'failure' in matters of security, and their heightened opposition is pushing the UPA government into defensive mode.

Obviously, the Congress does not want the BJP to make political capital out of the modalities for tackling terrorism since it has a direct fallout on vote-bank politics.

The Congress party feels a dovish Prime Minister Singh, driven by larger considerations of economic development, may err in handling the nuances of people's expectations of the entire issue of terrorism and Pakistan's involvement.

Already, he is under fire for 'whitewashing' the issue of infiltration of terrorists from across the border before his meeting with Musharraf in Havana.

Even K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India's strategic thinkers and an able supporter of Singh's diplomacy, says, "The prime minister committed a mistake when he said infiltration has come down. He should not have made that statement because this month the infiltration from Pakistan may be down but by next month it may go up."

The twin issues of Pakistan's involvement in the Mumbai blasts and the capital punishment awarded to Afzal Guru, the prime accused in the Parliament attack case, have come in handy for the RSS-BJP to raise their pitch against the government.

That any move by the prime minister to bolster the India-Pakistan peace process will be looked at with suspicion in the domestic political arena was evident in the all-out attack launched by the Sangh Parivar over the last three days.

In Nagpur, RSS sarsangchalak K S Sudarshan was strident against the government over terrorism in his annual Dussehra speech on October 2.

A day before, in Rajasthan, BJP president Rajnath Singh asked the government to 'review the diplomatic ties' with Pakistan in view of the Mumbai police's revelations.

The Congress is wary of these attacks since it is easier for the BJP to sully the government's image on the issue of national security. On the other hand, the Congress is worried that if, in order to counter the BJP's propaganda, it takes tougher measures, that may impact the Muslim community because of the inherent risk of the police mishandling the accused in terror-related cases.

Equally, the government is worried about the real risk of terrorist attacks during the ongoing festive season.

Already views are being expressed that the proposed joint mechanism to tackle terrorism between India and Pakistan may remain a non-starter.

Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon's statement that India wants Pakistan to 'not only talk but take action against terrorism on the ground' as Islamabad will be judged by its actions and not words, is seen as somewhat mild by political leaders. And it was left to Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma to argue that India's statements are based on 'concrete investigation and evidence'.

"The likelihood is that the so-called joint mechanism agreed upon in Havana may fail to produce any results, which should not be surprising, while the composite dialogue, though it may not have produced any appreciable results so far, will roll on with some delays perhaps in the scheduling of meetings. Much will depend on how Pakistan perceives the various Indian statements in their context," says Pakistan expert and former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar.

India's Intelligence Bureau and the bureaucratic network are also highly sceptical of the actual functioning of the joint mechanism and its fallout.

One apprehension expressed was over Pakistan misusing information provided under the joint mechanism. Questions are being asked whether by sharing evidence with Pakistan on the recent Mumbai blasts, India will actually help Pakistan understand India's investigative capabilities which may help it get the better of Indian security the next time.

Most of the critical comments against the joint mechanism are based on the thinking that there is no evidence that Pakistan has given up its policy of using terrorism as a weapon against India to achieve its strategic objective of annexing Kashmir and destabilising the rest of the country.

Terrorism expert B Raman warns, "We should have no illusions that Pakistan will cooperate with us sincerely in investigating the Mumbai blasts and in arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators."

Subrahmanyam concurs that the fault lies in not giving a correct emphasis to the issue.

"While we should not underplay the evidence of the Mumbai police, we should not overplay the idea of joint mechanism. People should be told that the joint mechanism is not going to solve all the problems of terrorism," he says.

But he maintains that the government should not dither from talking to Pakistan.

"The ISI may be doing it but we should be prepared to deal with them. Pakistan is our next-door neighbour. We should keep on talking to them because we can't go to war."

"The people and the media should not expect anything spectacular out of Indo-Pakistan talks. That would help."

Raman says the Manmohan Singh government "has totally toned down, if not stopped, its public diplomacy against Pakistan on the issue of its sponsorship of terrorism against India. This is totally wrong and unwise."

Indeed, Congress leaders themselves are wary that Musharraf is "a dicey leader" facing the compulsions of upcoming elections in his country and the escalating turbulence on the Afghan border, which may force him to misuse Dr Singh's goodwill.

They fear he may not only bring back the Kashmir agenda to the forefront forcefully but even abuse the joint mechanism.

Also, the Congress is aware that the "red and green (Left parties and Muslims) alliance" in certain constituencies will cut into its electoral interests if the issue of national security is allowed to be made into an election plank by the BJP.

In these insecure times, the BJP is attempting to severely limit Dr Singh's space to advance the Indo-Pak peace process.

In Ahmedabad, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, toying with the idea of an early assembly election, launched a scathing attack on the Congress.

On Dussehra day he said, 'The Congress had softened its attitude towards terrorism.'

Modi also attacked Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad who has backed the groups demanding mercy for Afzal Guru.

'The people of this country should understand how this demand by the J&K chief minister will boost the morale of terrorists. If the UPA government commits the mistake of pardoning terrorists then it would be responsible for future terrorist attacks. Azad's demand for clemency for Guru shows that the people of this country are in great danger due to the UPA government's sympathetic attitude towards terrorists,' Modi said.

He was making it loud and clear that the BJP, already sensing the popular mood reminiscent of the pre-Shah Bano days -- when the then Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi enacted legislation to overturn a Supreme Court verdict to grant maintenance to divorcee Shah Bano, leading to the BJP consolidating its Hindu vote-bank -- is readying for a deeper undertone to Hindutva politics in the coming days.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi