21 September 2016

The power of balance - India's internationalization of the Kashmir issue after Uri

K.P. Nayar

The Uri attack poses a major challenge to the method in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's strategy to counter the internationalization of the Kashmir issue on an intensified scale, which is clearly on the cards in the coming months.

In a generic sense, the steadily deteriorating conditions in the Valley since the death of Burhan Wani, the militant social media propagandist, have internationalized Kashmir and brought the issue back into global focus. The Narendra Modi government knows that unless it has a cogent strategy, further internationalization can compromise the core of its global agenda, which is focused on economic and social development. Well before the Uri attack, the government, therefore, crafted a plan that it has already put to work quietly without fanfare. In order to make this plan work effectively, the ministry of external affairs does not want to even acknowledge that it is engaged in an out-of-the-box diplomatic offensive with the aim of neutralizing Pakistan's efforts to take its relations with India to the global centre stage.

What the terrorist killings in Uri have necessitated is a fresh look at this strategy and a demand within closed doors during meetings of the top political leadership for a fine-tuning of how it is implemented. In part, the decision of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to skip the Non-Aligned Summit in Venezuela was integral to this carefully considered strategy even though the government deliberately fostered an impression that Modi was skipping the summit because he was disenchanted with the movement that was started by Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Josip Broz Tito. Modi's perceived ideological moorings also lent itself to that wrong impression.

In crafting its diplomatic strategy on Kashmir, the Modi government drew heavily on the experience of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, which had its back to the wall both in the Valley and on the international stage in 1993-94. Because Modi did not travel to Isla de Margarita last weekend, the core of the Indian delegation to the 17th Non-Aligned Summit had an entirely Muslim persona. The leader of the Indian delegation was a Muslim - the vice president, Hamid Ansari. The first major Indian speech at the Venezuela summit was made by a Muslim, the minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar. The key official coordinating Indian moves at the summit and doing the diplomatic troubleshooting was a Muslim, Syed Akbaruddin, the permanent representative of India to the United Nations in New York. After his courtesy meeting upon arrival with the host of the summit - the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro Moros - Ansari hurried off to his most important bilateral engagement in Isla de Margarita, which is at the core of the government's Kashmir strategy: a long session with Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani.

The importance of this meeting lay in Ansari's institutional memory as a former diplomat. Of all the 53 countries at the former commission on human rights in Geneva, it was Iran that helped India most in avoiding an embarrassing censure by the UN on Kashmir in 1994. Two diplomats steered that successful effort. One of them was Ansari, then permanent representative of India to the UN in New York, the other was Prakash Shah, Ansari's counterpart in Geneva. Iran is a former chair of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It moderated the OIC's reactions to Kashmir during the organization's summit in Tehran in December 1997 and during its three-year presidency of what was then known as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Iran is the immediate past chair of NAM, and by virtue of that position it is part of the NAM troika - a key role since Venezuela is unlikely to pull its weight as the new chair of the movement as its president sags into a possible exit under the weight of Venezuela's current economic and political crisis.

Additionally, Ansari was one of India's two most successful ambassadors in Tehran since the Islamic revolution. He helped turn around the Islamic Republic's relations with India, prising Qom, the spiritual capital of the ayatollahs away from Pakistan for the first time. A similar effort by Indira Gandhi during the Shah's rule only met with limited success.

That is not all. After Barack Obama has left office, when the history of the nuclear deal with Iran is written, Ansari's intellectual and quasi-diplomatic role in facilitating the deal will become a matter of record. The Iranians know this and if Tehran is to be persuaded to play any role supportive of India at next month's 43rd session of the OICforeign ministers' meeting in Tashkent, the vice president was the best possible interlocutor with Rouhani in Isla de Margarita.

Within India's strategic community and in the public fora, there is a tendency to dismiss the OIC as completely inconsequential. Even the MEA spokesmen often tend to shrug off the organization with the attitude that it will, habitually, never have a good word for India. The threat to Indian diplomacy from the OIC in the coming months is, however, real. It now has 57 member states across four continents. Increasingly, candidacies for important international posts are being pushed through the forum of the OIC by its member states. Among the examples are Turkey's UN general assembly presidency in 2020, Pakistan's non-permanent seat in the UN security council in 2024 and, mostly recently, Qatar's membership of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency from next year. There are many more examples.

The OIC's "contact group" on Kashmir met in New York this week. It has mobilized Masood Khan, the so-called president of 'Azad' Kashmir since last month, to explore the possibility of a resolution in the general assembly's third committee, which deals with humanitarian issues, on the situation in Kashmir. Khan attended the contact group meeting. Since Khan was Pakistan's permanent representative to the UN in New York until last year, his contacts in the UN are still fresh. It is widely believed that Islamabad foisted Khan as 'president' on the parts of Kashmir it occupies with the sole intention of internationalizing the Kashmir dispute with India.

An assessment in South Block that attempts may be made in the general assembly, which began its "general debate" on Tuesday to revive the Kashmir issue in the form of a resolution, prompted some hasty changes in high-level government itineraries to fit in with the strategy put in place for NAM of recreating the Indian persona at the UN in a Muslim image.

So, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, who was to have originally reached New York on Monday was told by Modi to stay back in New Delhi. Instead, the prime minister directed M.J. Akbar to proceed to New York from Caracas and attend all general assembly events until Saturday when presidents, prime ministers, crown princes and princesses from across the globe finish speaking at the general debate. Swaraj will now reach New York only on Saturday after most heads of state and government have left the UN. Much of the crucial networking for the 71st general assembly session took place on Tuesday at a welcome reception in the morning in the Indonesian Lounge in the general assembly building and later at the state luncheon of the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in the North Delegates Lounge of the conference building on Turtle Bay. Akbar attended both.

Although a new member of Modi's council of ministers, Akbar's reputation had travelled ahead of him from Isla de Margarita where he propounded to NAM the idea of "power of balance" to replace the age-old diplomatic concept known as "balance of power". He also urged NAM to "walk the talk and set up a NAM working group on terrorism". Next week, Akbar will travel to Tashkent only a few days before the OIC foreign ministers are to meet there to discuss Kashmir, among other subjects. Akbaruddin's mandate in Isla de Margarita and in New York went far beyond his official position as an additional secretary in the MEA because of the role he has played in NAM in the months preceding the summit: the anti-colonial, Third World movement that India founded along with newly-independent countries in Nehru's time has its coordinating bureau in New York.

As India's coordinator to the NAM bureau that runs concurrently with his job as ambassador to the UN, this Muslim diplomat's role in countering Pakistan's propaganda about persecution of Muslims by a Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi will be be critical during this general assembly session.

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