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Date June 24, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Resemblance of things past

A few weeks ago, when fighting first broke out in Kargil, there were those who suggested the "war-like situation" represented a severe setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party government and, more specifically, for the prime minister himself. Others went further. They drew parallels with 1962 and suggested A B Vajpayee could well become the Jawaharlal Nehru of this crisis.

To be sure, the parallels were not entirely farfetched. In 1962, the prime minister had staked his personal credibility on friendly relations with a neighbour. In 1999, the prime minister hoped to go to the people as an apostle of peace who had journeyed to Lahore to improve relations with another neighbour. In 1962, when the neighbour turned around and attacked India (at least according to our interpretation of events), Nehru spoke of a great betrayal. In 1999 after the fighting had commenced, Vajpayee complained about how the Pakistanis had sweet-talked him in Lahore while simultaneously planning an invasion of Kargil.

In 1962, the country had as defence minister a politician with connections to the international socialist movement and no record of interest in military matters. In 1999, India's defence minister is also an international socialist of long standing, whose background is in trade unionism, not material activities. In 1962, the defence minister had been accused of playing politics with the armed forces. It had been suggested that a brilliant army chief (General K S Thimayya) had been forced out only because he stood up for his force against a powerful and idiosyncratic minister. In 1999, George Fernandes has faced the same kind of accusations though this time, it was a naval chief (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat) who went rather than an army chief.

In 1962, our forces were unable to make any quick breakthroughs despite the prime minister's claim he had asked for the intruders to be thrown out. The excuse offered was that this was high altitude warfare, the intruders were already well entrenched and that we had been taken by surprise. In 1999, the prime minister has said the same sort of thing about driving out the intruders and more or less the same excuses have been offered.

Logically, the parallels should not end there. In 1962, this kind of situation led to disastrous consequences. First, the defence minister (V K Krishna Menon) was sacked and consigned to a kind of political limbo from which he never recovered. Then, the attack shifted to the prime minister himself. Because the prime minister in question was Jawaharlal Nehru and because independent India had never known any other prime minister in the 15 years of its existence, he survived in office. But his image was severely dented and after that reverse, he never quite hit his stride again. People began to see him as old and tired and in less than two years, he was dead.

Those who sought to draw parallels with 1962 rather hoped the same kind of consequences would follow. In the first week of the "war-like situation" many people wrote Fernandes off, arguing that while he might have survived the Bhagwat affair, there was no way he was going to last through Kargil. Fernandes made matters worse for himself by being accessible to the media. The press had scented blood and each remark he made was seen as positive proof he was unfit for the job.

When he suggested (on the basis of phone taps subsequently released and treated as entirely authentic by the media) the Pakistan army had kept Nawaz Sharief in the dark, the press treated him as the village idiot. When a reporter asked if safe passage was an option and he responded he would consider anything, this was transformed into a policy statement by the media and various retired generals crawled out of the woodwork to condemn him.

But if you need proof that 1999 is not 1962, you need only look at the way Fernandes has bounced back. Those who hoped to turn him into the Krishna Menon of his generation have been bitterly disappointed. Ever since he decided to stop briefing the press (poor fellow, he can't win; when Bhagwat was sacked, he was blamed for being too quiet -- now he is being attacked for talking too much), Fernandes has ceased to be the issue. To be sure the likes of J Jayalalitha and Subramanian Swamy (and P Chidambaram! Could this be the first time PC has been in such dubious company?) may call for his resignation, but nobody pays much attention.

More striking is the manner in which Vajpayee has ridden out the crisis. When the intruders were first detected, the Congress could hardly believe its luck. First, it screamed "intelligence failure". Then it made fun of Vajpayee's Lahore trip. The party arranged for an inflatable bus-balloon which it captioned "Delhi-Lahore-Kargil". The bus told its story. Vajpayee was a well meaning fellow who was a little out of his depth in the arena of international relations. As he himself admitted, the Pakistanis had successfully pulled wool over his eyes while he wandered around Lahore reciting poems about how he wouldn't let a war happen.

Within the Congress, there were always two views on how to handle the Kargil crisis. The first was to treat this as China-style debacle and to go for the kill. But others counselled patience. They argued the country would not take kindly to an attack on the government while our jawans were still in the field. Far wiser to wait till the fighting was over before tearing into the government for its ineptitude. Both approaches differed only on timing. What everyone agreed about was this: the government has messed up so badly the Congress could only gain from the fiasco.

With an election due in September, the subtext was obvious. The Congress would go to the polls painting itself as the party of good governance. The BJP was so inept that it had looked the other way while Pakistan had occupied chunks of our territory. It had taken the tragic and unnecessary deaths of our brave soldiers to make up for the BJP's mistakes.

Of course, it hasn't worked out that way. There is no evidence at all that Vajpayee's image has suffered because of the Kargil crisis. Even the most basic charge -- that he went out on a foolish bus trip while an invasion was being planned -- has failed to stick. People concede that the Pakistanis were insincere when they welcomed the bus with banquets and bouquets. But they do not accept this was Vajpayee's fault. Instead they act as though Pakistan has cheated each and every Indian, not just the prime minister.

What has made the difference? Why, despite the many parallels, has the 1962 analogy failed to hold?

I suspect there are several reasons. One: the Chinese invasion came as a shock to us because we were not used to war. Today, we are only too used, if not to war, then to low-intensity conflicts. Brutally put, war has lost its shock value. Two: in 1962, we felt genuinely betrayed by the Chinese. We felt we had done them a favour by launching them on the international stage and year of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai propaganda had made a significant impact. So there was much greater anger when the Chinese invaded. But nobody has any illusions about Pakistan. We may feel cheated by their false protestations during the Lahore trip but, at some basic level, we never really expected much better from them.

But there are other reasons as well. We felt the impact of the 1962 war most when it looked as though Assam would be cut off from the rest of India. In fact, Nehru actually conceded this would happen. (In the event, the Chinese retreated even though there was no military reason for doing so.) This time around, there is no immediate threat to any part of India we regard as integral. (And let's be honest, most of the country doesn't really give a toss about the Srinagar-Leh highway, no matter how strategically important it is.) If it looked as though the Pakistanis were about to invade Srinagar or if Amritsar was lost for ever, then I suspect our reactions would be very different.

Finally, there is the scale of the conflict. In 1962, we faced the People's Liberation Army which decisively defeated us. This time, the Indian Army and Air Force are fighting 2,000 mercenaries and Pakistani soldiers in fancy dress. It is possible it may take months to drive them out of their bunkers (actually our bunkers they stealthily occupied). But defeat is not an option. Unless the situation escalates into a full-scale war (which is not in Pakistan's interests), we stand no chance of being humiliated. The worst case scenario is that the conflict will drag on and on.

To think that you can use the 1962 parallel against Vajpayee has proved to be mistaken. But there is one other scenario the Opposition hasn't taken into account. No matter how tough the intruders are they can't really hold out against the might of the Indian Army forever, particularly if their supply lines are cut and Pakistan loses interest in backing them. Eventually, India has to win, in the sense that the territory will be recaptured at some stage.

When this will happen is anybody's guess. But supposing the army manages to flush out the intruders by the end of July. Given the patriotic hype surrounding the conflict, there is no doubt India will project this as a huge military victory. And both the media and the people will buy this line.

In that case, Vajpayee goes into the election as the first Indian prime minister to win a war since Indira Gandhi. What parallel do you use then: 1962 or 1971?

My guess is it could happen. And an Opposition that expected a Chinese debacle may have to cope with a Bangladesh-style victory.

Vir Sanghvi

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