Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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The Politics of Pipelines

by S Sathananthan

For the first time, the Indian and Pakistani governments are sincerely exploring the possibility for Kashmiri self-rule within the Indian Union... These ideological disputes in north India clouded the geopolitics that underlie the BJP’s policy U-turn, which signal a fundamental shift in Indian nationalism towards Pakistan. Why did Advani contrive to re-discover Jinnah? What forces impelled the BJP’s policy revision?

India and Pakistan appear by most accounts to be moving towards a resolution of the dispute over Indian Kashmir. Earlier exchanges between the two countries were no more than political posturing, each accusing the other as “aggressor” and each blaming the other for human rights violations in Kashmir Valley. This time round there is a distinct change in the atmosphere. There is no more finger-pointing, no attempt to claim the moral high-ground as the aggrieved “victim”. There is a serious effort to crawl out of the Kashmir tunnel. For the first time, the Indian and Pakistani governments are sincerely exploring the possibility for Kashmiri self-rule within the Indian Union.

Re-discovery of Jinnah

The first inkling of a change in Indian policy came in June 2005 when a senior member of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), Lal Krishna Advani, visited Pakistan. During public speeches in Lahore and Karachi he underlined Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s secular credentials; he lauded Jinnah as a man who left “an inerasable stamp on history”, who founded a new State and, therefore, was one among “a few who actually create history”. The Hindu-fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) reacted with undisguised fury. In the eyes of the RSS, Advani committed political heresy when he exonerated Jinnah; he jettisoned a tenet of Indian nationalism, that Jinnah is the original evil Islamist solely responsible for dividing British India along religious lines.

Advani also emphasised the corollary. He categorically declared: “the emergence of India and Pakistan as two separate, sovereign and independent states is an unalterable reality of history.” The RSS did not miss the obvious conclusion: that Advani – and by implication his BJP – now accepted the Two-Nation theory as well as the political legitimacy of the States of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Advani’s intervention strikes at the core of the RSS expansionist Akhand Bharat (Greater India) ideology, which is premised on reversing the 1947 Partition by annexing Pakistan and Bangladesh to India. That was Advani’s second heresy.

Because, Advani – the Hindutva “hardliner” within his BJP and champion of the Ayodhya movement – culled Hindutva with surgical precision. He exorcised the Jinnah-demon that has for more than half a century served Hindu nationalism as the symbolic shorthand for all things despicable about Pakistan: “let there be no place for anti-Indianism in Pakistan, and no place”, he pledged, “for anti-Pakistanism in India.” In effect, he simultaneously torpedoed delusions of Akhand Bharat; and he casually played down the Ayodhya issue. The BJP formerly distanced itself from Jinnah’s statements. But the party never contradicted them, for Advani no doubt cleared in advance his controversial statements with the BJP leadership. BJP’s policy U-turn unleashed a political tsunami in India.

Advani comments placed Jinnah on the same secular pedestal hitherto occupied by Gandhi and Nehru. The Congress Party quickly discounted what it saw as historical revisionism: its spokesman Abhishek Singhvi flayed “Jinnah's brand of secularism…which cannot be compared to the secularism of Gandhi and Nehru." Worse still, by recognising Jinnah’s achievement of creating Pakistan, Advani is suspected of conferring legitimacy upon religion-based nationalist mobilisation for national self-determination. One writer concluded that Advani is “administering ideological `shock therapy' to the BJP”; that he was “instigating a ‘revolution from above’ in the Sangh Parivar” in India in order to moderate Hindutva and remake the BJP as a national party acceptable to the Muslims. Almost in the next breath the same writer contradicted his moderation thesis. Advani, he speculated, used Jinnah as a political crutch for “a larger, more pernicious, purpose…he [Advani] ‘normalised’ the use of ethno-religious mobilisation as a valid political strategy even to achieve the goal of creating a state in which all citizens enjoy equal rights. This amounts to sanctifying communalism - at least of one kind. Advani,” he concluded, “thus sought legitimacy for the Parivar's mobilisation around Ayodhya.” So the third heresy Advani committed is casting serious doubts upon Indian historiography’s facile separation of nationalism from communalism.

These ideological disputes in north India clouded the geopolitics that underlie the BJP’s policy U-turn, which signal a fundamental shift in Indian nationalism towards Pakistan. Why did Advani contrive to re-discover Jinnah? What forces impelled the BJP’s policy revision?

We can unhesitatingly put aside the assertion that Advani’s “opportunism” is driven largely by narrow self-interest, his cynical manoeuvre to craft a “shortcut to power and the Prime Minister's office” by appeasing the Muslim electorate. The BJP’s 2004 electoral debacle caused by the flight of substantial Muslim votes, it is alleged, catalysed Advani’s political U-turn. Domestic politics may have exerted some influence. Important foreign policy shifts, however, are rarely mono-causal changes; they have regional and global dimensions. Why, then, did the government announce the policy change in Pakistan when the BJP could have easily done the same on Indian soil?

Pipeline and energy security

Advani made his pro-Pakistan statements standing on Pakistani soil in Karachi. Almost simultaneously, India’s Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Mani Shankar Ayar was engaged in official negotiations in Islamabad over a transnational gas pipeline from Iran via Pakistan to India. The timing is crucial. Perhaps the BJP was compelled to revise its policy primarily because access to Iranian gas is now closely linked to guaranteeing India’s energy security. And Pakistan-baiting undermines attempts to normalise relations with Pakistan; it has become politically counterproductive for the economic elite in India.

This sea change in the Indian perspective took place apparently within the space of about two years.

The geopolitical context is the Anglo-American lunge at West and Central Asian energy (oil and gas) resources. Following the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, the US openly declared its intention to “redraw” the map and expand American control over all significant energy resources in that region. US policy makers explicitly designed the neo-colonial occupation of Iraq as the first step in this “grand design”. The neo-colonial regime in Kabul, propped up by the CIA, is a springboard for American energy multinationals to move into and monopolise Central Asian energy resources in the teeth of Russian opposition.

By the end of 2004, the Indian economic elite fully grasped the strategic implications of an American stranglehold on global energy supplies. India’s industrial expansion and economic growth and its ambitions of achieving world power status within the next decade or two would be hostage to US interests. India, as an emerging world power, took the logical corrective actions.

New Delhi explored ways of securing reliable and inexpensive supplies of energy from a range of oil producing countries, from Russia to Nigeria, and looked at the proposed undersea pipeline from Qatar to India via the Pakistani coast. By the first half of 2005 it was clear that overland pipelines from Iran and Central Asia, traversing Pakistani territory, are the most economically feasible options; and gas supplied through the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline was estimated to be the least expensive.

Almost overnight changing geopolitics redefined Pakistan as the critical land bridge connecting India to energy sources in West and Central Asia. That has dramatically transformed Islamabad and New Delhi into strategic allies for energy security. Moreover, Pakistan too needs Iranian gas to meet its growing domestic demand. The urgency to normalise bilateral relations cannot be overstated.

China is also entering the new “Great Game” in Central Asia for access to energy resources. Peking is already involved in a pipeline project with Iran.

The construction and operation of pipelines also open up avenues for lucrative investments for Indian and Pakistani public and private sectors. The Asian Gas Grid linking Iran and Central Asia to Burma and China via Pakistan and India promoted by Mani Shankar Iyar would have vast investment opportunities for private capital in both countries and generate undreamed of profits.

If one takes account of class interests that decisively influence policies of major political parties, it is not difficult to surmise the background to the BJP’s revisionism. The industrial and financial houses that bankroll political parties are evidently not in the mood any more to humour anti-Pakistanism that could derail investment prospects in, and undermine potential profits from, the proposed energy grid. They have apparently leaned on the BJP and pressed the party to exorcise anti-Pakistan demonology. The probable threat, at the very least implied, is that financial taps would be turned off if the BJP did not change tack.

In short, anti-Pakistanism appears to be fast becoming so dysfunctional that Advani was compelled to underline his policy U-turn by flatly conceding in Karachi that the India-Pakistan peace process is “irreversible”. Indeed, the contrasting reactions of India’s political elite to two armed confrontations are striking. When the Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2003, literally within a matter of hours politicians and the press blindly pointed fingers at Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). But they displayed exemplary restraint following the July 2005 attack in Ayodhya, repeatedly asserting that there is no evidence of ISI’s involvement; and the BJP’s half-hearted attempts to “mourn” the “tragedy” were shot down promptly.

Indo-US nuclear collaboration

The proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline flies in the face of American attempts to isolate Iran. In fact the US administration has been flatly opposed to the project. To entice India away from Iran, the US has offered to transfer nuclear technology to India for power generation, provided the country does not go ahead with the pipeline. Many have observed some loss of interest in the pipeline project under US pressure by the Congress-led ruling alliance. There is fierce debate in New Delhi whether or not India ought to place its energy security hostage to US interests.

The Indian government continues to make formal declarations that there is no change in its policy regarding the pipeline. However, there is in New Delhi a clear realisation that the country is at a major tuning point in its history. Does it have the confidence to follow China’s independent stance and go ahead with energy collaboration with Iran? Or is it taking seriously American promises to make India a great power?

5 May 2006

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