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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 21:40 GMT
Analysis: Blair's South Asia diplomacy
Blair and Indian PM Atal Behari Vaypayee at a news conference in Delhi
Does Britain, one-time colonial ruler, still hold sway?
Paul Reynolds

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair found himself in India and Pakistan as war loomed, and did his best to help avert a conflict.

If war is averted, then he can claim justification. If it is not, then maybe he is better off studying Britain's trains

It was certainly a timely visit - though one arranged weeks ago - but whether it was a helpful one is much less clear.

The thrust of his diplomacy, which is part of a wider Western effort involving the United States above all others, was to set a framework for a solution.

This involves getting Pakistan to crack down on the anti-Indian militant groups (terrorists in the Indian view) while pressing India to wait for results and not to launch the war which is threatening to do.

In the longer term, the idea is to encourage a political dialogue over the disputed state of Kashmir, the source of unending conflict between India and Pakistan.

The framework is being put in place.

Time bomb

But frameworks alone do not provide solutions. The risk of war remains. When a country has a grievance and moves troops forward, it has to be taken seriously.

Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee presents Blair with the Delhi declaration against terrorism
India's declaration against terrorism

India has a grievance and wants that grievance satisfied. If it is not satisfied by what Pakistan does, then it will seek satisfaction by arms.

On the plus side, India has not attacked and is now more aware that the world is listening to its view.

India is deeply angry at the armed assault on its parliament on 13 December and blames Pakistan for this and for supporting numerous armed groups opposing Indian rule in Kashmir.

'Wait and see' tactic

India seems prepared at least to wait and see if Pakistan will take action.

And while in Pakistan, Mr Blair announced that the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had committed himself to opposing terrorism "in all its forms", which is diplomatic code for opposing violence inspired by Pakistani and Islamist resentment over Kashmir.

General Musharraf announced that he would be making a speech soon in which he would announce his plan. Much will hang on that speech.

But the general has a fine path to tread. He cannot afford to be humiliated by India and has to take account of Pakistani feelings over Kashmir, a state which its then ruler, a maharajah, gave to India in the carve-up during independence, despite its Muslim majority.

Room to manoeuvre

But General Musharraf has also shown a tendency to change policy.

Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf
How far can Musharraf soothe India without being humiliated?

He dumped the Taleban which Pakistan helped set up, and there is a chance that he sees, in this latest crisis, an opportunity to increase his control at the expense of Islamic extremists.

He is trying to present such a change in policy as one which is required for a more "tolerant" society and not one which is being forced on Pakistan by India. It is a clever approach but India will want to see the results.

Prime ministers and presidents whose previously arranged travel plans suddenly land them in a region where war could break out rarely miss the opportunity of trying to intervene, and are often forgotten as soon as their plane takes off again.

Will this be Mr Blair's fate? He made a speech in India which spoke of Britain playing a "pivotal" role in world affairs - a bold and potentially overblown claim.

It is certainly being tested by this crisis. If war is averted, then he can claim justification. If it is not, then maybe he is better off studying Britain's trains.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
07 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair urges Kashmir dialogue
07 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Downing Street hails Blair progress
06 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair backs anti-terror pledge
04 Jan 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Blair enters the maelstrom
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