Wed, 29 Mar 2000

Poles apart

The political strategies of India and Pakistan, at least towards each other, often seem unrelated to anything practical or sensible.

A sharp rebuke of the visiting American President at a New Delhi state dinner on Tuesday night suggests that nothing much has changed.

The scold was K.OR. Narayanan, whose chief of state duties are largely ceremonial. But he was clearly irritated past the bounds of normal protocol by Bill Clinton's remark weeks earlier, echoed by many others, that the subcontinent had become "the most dangerous place in the world today".

Such "alarmist" views "will only encourage those who want to break the peace and indulge in terrorism and violence", Mr. Narayanan told his guest in reprimanding tones.

Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton's comment is all too true, while Mr. Narayanan's response suggests that India lacks the political will or courage to do anything about it. Not, of course, that Pakistan does any better. The two nations seem locked into a mindlessly bellicose relationship over a portion of Kashmir claimed by both which has brought them nothing but grave harm.

Through dubious means, some 50 years ago India gained control over Muslim residents who didn't want them, and has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure retaining that grip.

Pakistan's main response has been to provoke wars and lose disastrously, while sponsoring cross-border raids (though denying responsibility) in the years between. This has helped give Pakistan a series of corrupt regimes, raising fears it may yet implode.

The difference today is that both sides have nuclear weapons, making any new war a global catastrophe. Both wrap their Kashmiri claims in angry righteousness and reject any talk of shifting the frontier, revising political control or moving rationally towards settlement. Violence too often is the preferred option.

Mr. Clinton won't change those attitudes this week. But unless both sides soon find some common ground, they may yet blunder into a nuclear disaster far more costly than their foolish wars to date.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong