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June 29, 2002 | 1420 IST
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Coercive diplomacy: A double-edged sword

The problem with coercive diplomacy is that it is akin to a double-edged sword. The weapon cuts both ways. Like a scalpel, it can cut off a diseased organ in the hands of a skilled surgeon or it could maim and even kill.

For six months since December last year, Indian troops and their counterparts from Pakistan have been confronting one another in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation - to use Defence Minister George Fernandes' colourful phrase - along the international border and the Line of Control between the two countries.

By early-June, relations between the two countries had really hotted up. That's when the travel advisories started coming in thick and fast - from the US, the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and so on.

Diplomats and business executives left the country in hordes. Embassies and high commissions were emptied of foreign nationals. New Delhi's Chanakyapuri and Shanti Path started bearing a deserted look.

India-Pakistan relations had deteriorated to such an extent that even a "respected" weekly like India Today, in its June 10 carried a fictional picture of people running helter-skelter as vermilion flames from a nuclear bomb threatened to engulf the famous India Gate structure in the heart of the country's capital. The cover feature carried a tantalising title: 'What if…'

Then, of course, came the notorious article in Time magazine that painted a horrifying picture of an aging monarch, addled with excessive consumption of alcohol, sitting in Race Course Road with his trembling finger hovering ominously over the nuclear button.

Though there was hardly anybody in India who was taken in by this alarmist scenario, for the rest of the world - ignorant as many are about the ways of the world's largest democracy - the situation in the subcontinent surely seemed pretty grim.

If there are still quite a few in New Delhi's corridors of power who continue to gloat about how India's views on cross-border terrorism and infiltration of trained mercenaries from Pakistani camps are being heard at long last with attention, empathy and sympathy - where else, but in the White House and Capitol Hill in Washington DC? - there are many more who are extremely alarmed at the alacrity with which citizens from developed countries left this country in a huff.

Some of the travel advisories issued by the governments of countries like the US, the UK, Japan and Australia have been modified, but they have not yet been withdrawn completely.

While citizens from these countries still in India have been advised that they can hang on, those not in this country but intending to come here have been explicitly told to shun 'non-essential' travel to India, including travel for business or leisure.

The US State Department advisory, revised on Wednesday June 26, acknowledged that the 'very high level of tension between India and Pakistan that existed…(has) subsided somewhat.' Still, it added that the 'risk of renewed high levels of tension cannot be ruled out.'

Officials of the Government of India have described these advisories as "unwarranted" and claimed that India is a "perfectly safe and secure place for foreigners". All very fine, except that not too many appear to be paying attention to what's being said.

Those sympathetic to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government may be under an impression that India has suddenly begun to matter, if not to the entire comity of nations then certainly to the world's only superpower.

Such individuals may be deluded into thinking along such lines because of the fact that one top official after another have been winging their way from Washington or London to New Delhi to meet our very own prime minister, home minister, defence minister, not to forget the minister for external affairs and the principal secretary to the prime minister who also doubles up as the National Security Adviser.

The dignitaries come and go. They smile for the television cameras outside the grand Hyderabad House in New Delhi, the mandatory sound bytes are recorded and it almost seems as if it's business as usual. But, in fact, the opposite is true. It is far from business as usual.

The unpleasant fact is that foreign businesspersons have been made so jittery that they would right now prefer to stay as far away from India as they possibly can. Their governments have forewarned them that this could become the most dangerous place on earth because two south-Asian nations, perpetually at loggerheads for more than half a century, could just about now begin to start nuking each other.

We often delude ourselves into believing that India matters to the rest of the world. This is far from correct, even if one out of six inhabitants of Planet Earth live in this country. One is reminded of a cartoon that had appeared early last year (long before September 11) showing a rather puzzled George W Bush Jr scratching his head and telling Dick Cheney: "Dick, India and Pakistan are fighting over a shirt." To which, Cheney tells Bush: "But Kashmir is also a region."

The war clouds that hung ominously over the border and the LoC have cleared. Fernandes is claiming there is no danger of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Still, the troops will not be withdrawn in a hurry, or so says our socialist Raksha Mantri.

The spokespersons of the ministry of external affairs are on overdrive. Yet, the truth is that most of the world does not seem to be listening to us. Even if they are hearing the voices of our government officials, they do not seem to believe what they are saying.

British Gas has asked its employees to stop working on exploration rigs in the Gulf of Cambay and in the Mukta-Panna oilfields. Who in Her Majesty's Government does not know that these oil and gas fields are located close to the India-Pakistan border when even a school student of geography knows about it?

The staffers of the British High Commission who had left India in a tearing hurry are unlikely to return. Japan Airlines had chartered an aircraft and literally arm-twisted every citizen from the Land of the Rising Sun to leave this country, whether they had wanted to or not.

Among such individuals are employees of Suzuki Motor Corporation - the same company that now controls Maruti Udyog and wants to dramatically alter the face of the Indian automobile industry. Dreams can wait.

As far as hundreds of foreign institutional investors who had flocked to the bourses in Mumbai are concerned, the mood in the marketplace appears distinctly downbeat. There has been a more than 70 per cent drop in the net inflow of funds from FIIs this year.

This fact should not be surprising since the money brought into the country by FIIs - like water and the Marwari businessman - tends to find its own level. After all, why should foreign portfolio investors choose to come to India when sentiments in the stockmarkets here are so depressingly bearish.

Blame it on the communal carnage in Gujarat or the American markets, what cannot be denied is the fact that the 30-scrip sensitive index of the Bombay Stock Exchange had hovered around the 3,200 mark for the better part of last week, way below the three-year high of 6,150 touched by the Sensex way back in mid-February 2000.

Frankly, very few in the Union government were really expecting the spate of travel advisories that came in the wake of the sabre-rattling and muscle-flexing that took place along the LoC. Many ministers and bureaucrats were naïve enough to believe that after the dust settled down, things would become hunky-dory once again. What they had not reckoned for was the continuing disbelief about India's military intentions over Pakistan.

More importantly, the impact of the war noises on businesspersons - who are known to be conservative, easily-scared and often fickle - was clearly underestimated. The country is now having to pay a stiff price for this gross error of judgment.

The Confederation of Indian Industry and other chambers of commerce are valiantly trying their best to convince their counterparts in developing countries that things are normal in India. Of course, they are.

But life was always a bit chaotic here, wasn't it? Who said India is a functioning anarchy? Let us accept reality. Like the boy who cried 'wolf' too often, when people start believing you when you are actually feigning about acting tough, matters can get a bit out of hand.

We can roll out the red carpet once again. But what's the use if the tarmacs are empty? So are many rooms in five-star hotels.

Once the genie gets out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back. Indeed, a stiff price has to be paid by many for the jingoistic ambitions of a few.

The author is Director, School of Convergence @ International Management Institute, New Delhi and a journalist with 25 years of experience in various media - print, Internet, radio and television.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

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