Man(mohan) at the helm

India's response to the crisis in Pakistan underscores the relative unimportance of the hawkish sentiments so frequently expressed in the Indian media. By  Prem Shankar Jha

 Prem Shankar JhaWhen Prime minister Manmohan Singh chaired his first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on 12 March, it became apparent within hours that the vacuum in which India had been drifting since he went into hospital for a heart operation two months earlier had been filled.

The meeting was devoted almost entirely to discussing the rapid deterioration in Pakistan. Barely three weeks earlier, on 18 February, Islamabad had signed a humiliating peace agreement with the Taliban in Swat. Two weeks after that Al Qaeda-linked Punjabi terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. And days after that President Zardari precipitated a crisis in Pakistan's struggling democracy by refusing to restore the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhury, and using a questionable Supreme Court judgement of the Musharraf days to bar Nawaz Sharif from fighting elections and remove his brother Shahbaz Sharif from power in Punjab.

This blatantly authoritarian move by a President with a questionable mandate in a country fighting for its very life, seemed to have sucked most of whatever legitimacy had remained from the government . No one was surprised, therefore, when suggestions began to be heard in Islamabad, that the democratic establishment was not capable of pulling Pakistan out of this mess and perhaps what Pakistan needed another touch of 'khaki' rule.

In contrast to earlier years, a return to army rule was anything but welcome to Pakistan's partners in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. For they no longer considered the Pakistan army a reliable ally. Not only had it shown no stomach for fighting the Taliban in the tribal regions, but its involvement in the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul , and its indirect complicity in the Mumbai attacks had might even welcome a confrontation with India in order to avoid getting more deeply entangled in an Afghan quagmire.

In Dr Singh's absence India's political leaders had taken their queue from the reactions of the west. Thus Mr. Pranab Mukherjee had echoed Holbrooke, Milliband and others when he expressed deep concern over Islamabad's surrender in Swat. He therefore implicitly rejected Islamabad's plea that it involved no more than a return to Swat's traditional mix of Sharia and local customary law, known locally as Rewaj, and was intended to wean away the majority of the Swatis from Mullah Fazlullah's fanatics.

When the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked the Congress party's spokesman , Manish Tiwari, went a step further and called Pakistan the Somalia of South Asia.