India fears Musharraf exit to unleash tension

Other News Materials 19 August 2008 01:39 (UTC +04:00)

Coincidence or not, as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's influence waned this year, there was a spike in firing across the Indian border, a bomb attack on India's Kabul embassy and diplomatic spats over Kashmir, Reuters reported.

Now he has been forced to resign, India fears that relations between the two nuclear rivals could get even worse.

While many Pakistanis despised Musharraf as a dictator, India enjoyed some of its best diplomatic relations in decades during his rule.

New Delhi's fear is that a weak civilian government in Islamabad will be unable to exert the same muscle that Musharraf did over Pakistan's army and the powerful military spy agency, the ISI, which India suspects has a hand in most attacks on its soil.

"How the vacuum is handled by the civilian government, how much control they can exercise on the radical elements remains to be seen," a senior Indian foreign ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.

The Indian government reacted cautiously to word that Musharraf had quit. "We have no comments to make on the resignation of President Musharraf of Pakistan," it said in a statement. "This is an internal matter of Pakistan."

But Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee later told reporters that " India will continue to have an amicable relation with Pakistan in the days to come."

The two countries have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and nearly came to a fourth one in 2002.

But since a peace process began in 2004 under Musharraf, there has been a string of improvements, from a cross-border bus service to more trade and some progress over border disputes.

That peace process could now be dumped, with a return to the hostilities that dogged South Asia for decades. Some Indian experts fear more Pakistan-backed militant attacks in Kashmir and the rest of India if Islamabad's new civilian government fails to assert control over the military.

"After four good years in which India had high hopes for the peace process, in the last four months the opposite has happened," said C. Raja Mohan, an Indian foreign affairs analyst based in Singapore.

"Musharraf was seen by India as decisive and ready to engage, compared with the chaos and division of the last few months."

This month's mass protests in Kashmir, for example, sparked some of the sharpest diplomatic spats in years between Islamabad and New Delhi. India accused Pakistan of interfering in its internal affairs after Islamabad talked of UN intervention.

There has been a spate of clashes in the past few months along the Line of Control, the de facto border dividing Kashmir, after relative calm that followed the start of the peace process.

India's government said in July that the peace process was "under stress". The statement came soon after a bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed at least 58 people. Both India and Afghanistan blame the ISI for that bombing.

"The ISI enjoyed greater autonomy since Musharraf's wings were clipped," said Ashok Mehta, a security analyst and former Indian army commander, referring to the coming to power of Pakistan's new civilian government in March.

"Once he is removed from the scene, ISI may have even greater autonomy."

Pakistan has denied any role in the attacks.

Some analysts see a worst-case scenario in which Pakistan's military or the ISI persuade militant groups on its Afghan border to switch attacks away from that frontier and towards India.

That strategy, Indian analysts say, could ease US pressure over the Afghan border, as well as make Indian troops, and not the Pakistani army, the victims of militants.

Earlier this month Indian National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan gave the government's clearest expression yet of its worries about Musharraf leaving.

"Whether he is impeached or not is not important from the Indian point of view," Narayanan told Singapore's Straits Times.

"But it leaves a big vacuum and we are deeply concerned about this vacuum because it leaves the radical extremist outfits with freedom to do what they like, not merely on Pakistan-Afghan border but clearly our side of the border too."

But it is early days in Pakistan, and few are willing to predict the outcome of the civilian government.

"We'll have to wait to see how the dust settles," said Mohan. "If the resignation of Musharraf leads to the primacy of the civilian leaders or to the primacy of the ISI and the army."