Indo-Pak: Swords crossed, nowhere to go
By ratcheting up nationalistic sentiments to a fever pitch, the BJP is trying to reap political dividends
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
What does it really take to escalate a war with Pakistan? Not much – it seems. After the surgical strikes – if they indeed caused as much harm as the Indian government is claiming they did – it would take just another retaliatory operation by the Pakistani Army or a vicious terror strike deep in India’s heartland for a full-blown war to break out. By the new rules of diplomatic engagement, India will take “a jaw for a tooth”, as colourfully stated by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav after the attack on the Uri army camp that resulted in 19 soldiers’ deaths. If this provocation does not lead to war, what would?
Is a war between India and Pakistan really around the corner? There is plenty of lazy analysis that suggests tension between the two neighbours is being ratcheted up due to the crucial upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat where the BJP is reportedly losing ground. Predictably, due to this prevailing cynicism, many had suggested, much before the tension spun out of control, that the two countries could go to war. However, a larger game is being played out: the reordering of Indian society along with the tricky long-term rebalancing of global powers. At the geo-strategic level it is manifesting itself in the retreat of the US from South Asia and the rise of China and Russia in these spaces. What is exacerbating the drama and the consequent tension is that India, with all its regional and global aspirations and its furious contestations with China and Pakistan, is relying on the support of the US, which is ambivalent about wielding clout in South Asia until a new president is elected in Washington.
What is particularly upsetting for New Delhi is that the US has not taken countenance of its feverish demands to isolate Pakistan and declare it a terror state. Instead, it has talked about India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the same breath as victims of terrorism and stressed the imperative to fight the scourge together. India, which is led by perhaps the most pro-US PM ever, did not really want it this way as it crossed the line of confusion and claimed that its Special Forces had avenged the lives lost in the Uri attack. It was expecting a more robust anti-Pakistan stand by Washington especially at a time when China was backing Islamabad. However, in the US calculus such wanton abandonment of an ally who was their frontline state in their much vaunted war against terrorism did not really fit in.
India under Modi was testing the limits of its power as the US was getting into election mode to ascertain how far it can expand its influence and interests. After Modi’s August 15 speech talked about extending support to the Baluchistan cause and reopened its claim over Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), it became clear how the government perceived the Kashmir dispute. The turmoil in the Kashmir Valley that has seen protests and curfew for more than 90 days over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, is seen as an outcome of Pakistani interference. The naive assumption that the Modi government is following in the Valley is that if there was no Islamabad interference all would be well. To lend credence to this line of reasoning, it is using the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the flow of money from across the border to protesters in the Valley. The end result is that the security forces are unrelenting in their enforcement of curfew. This hair-brained strategy has progressively weakened the coalition government. At the time of writing 85 people have died and thousands, including many securitymen, injured.
The same hardline strategy that resulted in the supposedly surgical Special Forces operation was meant to reassert its claim over the disputed territory and tell the Kashmiri militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad that they were no longer safe across the barbed wires that divide the two Kashmirs. Modi, who had earlier made some perfunctory gestures of friendship towards Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, by his current display of aggression has made it very clear that there was little space for Pakistan in his scheme of things. Pakistan Foreign Policy Adviser Sartaj Aziz acknowledged this when he said that there was no possibility of peace with India as long as Modi was prime minister.
This belligerent approach of the Modi government is not limited to foreign policy, where his government has gone into overdrive to isolate Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in India, it is also directed at those who counsel peace and prudence in India. Any suggestion to initiate a dialogue with Pakistan, as articulated by Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, is drowned in the cacophony of noisy television debates and jingoistic discourse unleashed by the ruling party. So aggressive has been the campaign on the issue of nationalism that relatively sane TV channels like NDTV have decided to exclude from their debates those who show any scepticism about the circumstances of the Uri attack or about the Special Forces operation. Any demand by those who doubt the operation is labelled anti-national and these doubters are added to the growing list of those who should be “sent to Pakistan”. Till now the government has not come out with evidence of the army crossing over to PoK – an event which is also denied by the Pakistan Army, which claims that routine small arm fire killed two of their soldiers. Islamabad disputes the version that the Indian Army entered its territory and destroyed the launch pads of terrorists. The Indian Army claims that they have videos of the operation. There have also been leaks about the operation that have been put out by newspapers and hyper-imaginative TV channels. Some of them have shown a paradrop from 35,000 feet by using a new type of parachute. Others have shown commandos moving through mines and other obstacles for two km and returning the same way. Other TV channels have found corroboration through a mock interview with a policeman posted in Mirpur who describes how the Indian forces have struck at five different places and destroyed a few buildings. Much of it sounds like poor quality fiction, but the Indian Army is not obliging its detractors as it knows the downside of such an exposure. First, it does not know what the Pakistani government has got out of the Maratha soldier who allegedly drifted into Pakistan. Some believe that he may tell a different story altogether. Then there is Kulbhushan Jadhav, our alleged R&AW officer who was arrested by the Pakistani Army near the Afghan border. No one really knows what kind of spin he will give to this operation. Lastly, the government is keen on de-escalating the situation at the LoC. The National Security Advisers of both countries, Ajit Doval and Nasser Khan Janjua, are in touch to prevent crisis escalation. The US and China have also counselled restraint, but much of what is being played out has its own logic.
The turmoil in the Kashmir Valley that has seen protests and curfew for more than 90 days over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, is seen as an outcome of Pakistani interference. The naive assumption that the Modi government is following in the Valley is that if there was no Islamabad interference all would be well. To lend credence to this line of reasoning, it is using the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the flow of money from across the border to protesters in the Valley
As stated above, the violent episodes at the border are meant to shoehorn the national discourse that diminishes political opposition to majoritarian nationalism. This is also being used to re-interpret the conduct of previous governments and show them as inadequate to the greater task of looking after the interests of the nation. It is a clever strategy that has sown the seeds of doubt in the minds of Congressmen. Party leaders like Sandeep Dikshit have written long, meandering letters wondering what the response was to various terrorism incidents. To show that they too were as mindful of national interest as Modi and his government, these Congress leaders are busy embellishing their CVs. They are pathetically trotting out retired generals and defence ministers to prove they conducted many “covert” operations when they were at the helm. In defending their record they are jettisoning their avowed policy of hiding covert operations that are premised on “deniability”. Does the BJP government really mind their opportunistic admission about how belligerent they were when they were in government? Surely not! In fact, it welcomes it as it has many lesser mortals who disagree with their progressive attempts to “militarise” Indian society. Besides, it also lends legitimacy to what it is doing.
In the name of not politicising the Indian Army operation, the ruling party has astutely managed to drag the political discourse onto its nationalistic turf. Take a look at the miserable politicians from so-called “secular” parties who have no option but to preface their objections to the government’s behaviour by first providing “whole-hearted support to the PM and the armed forces”. And when they do it, they have BJP leaders who vehemently insist that unconditional support to the armed forces should be extended because in this hour of crisis nothing should “demoralise” our soldiers. Political parties that have begun to campaign for the upcoming state elections are discovering that the issues they began campaigning with are being replaced by the happenings at the border.
Impact on state elections
The Congress, that began its well-crafted push to revive itself in Uttar Pradesh, which included a punishing 2,500-km yatra by Rahul Gandhi across the dusty, pot-holed roads of the state, realised to its mortification that the shift in the national discourse towards nationalism was taking attention away from issues of bread and livelihood. Gandhi, who began his campaign highlighting farm distress, realised there were fewer takers for what he was saying when Delhi was abuzz with the possibility of war with Pakistan. Some of his meetings at the fag end of his long tour were empty and he had to zip through them as he found that UP villages were not really immune to news of the happenings at the border. It was at this point that he launched a broadside claiming that the BJP was actually involved in “khoon ki dalali” (trading in blood) by politicising the sacrifices of armymen. Expectedly, there was a severe backlash against these remarks, encouraging his detractors to claim that his declamations had hurt the Army’s morale and he was only helping the cause of the enemy. The Congress now has support of the Left parties in criticising the manner in which large hoardings of BJP leaders have sprung up all over the state, congratulating Modi for a tough response. “If this isn’t politicization, what is?” Congress and CPI(M) leaders have wondered. This verbal sparring is going to worsen as the elections approach. The BJP, which is far ahead of other political parties in Uttar Pradesh, will use the border tension to take an unassailable lead.
The reason behind a BJP win, if it happens, will also have to do with the anger building against the Samajwadi Party government that has gone about shabbily consolidating its Yadav-Muslim vote bank. Expectedly, this has resulted in an upper caste-middle caste consolidation. The Congress, which is a marginal player in UP, is hoping it can garner the votes of Muslims, who are scared and disillusioned by the manner in which the SP has gone about manipulating them. No survey has hinted that there is a shift by the minorities or the Brahmins towards the Congress, but these are still early days.
The other contender is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is hoping that the SP’s loss could be its gain. Its leader, Mayawati, has been attracting large crowds, but the party has been on a secular decline and its hopes of winning again largely rest on Dalit-Muslim unity, which many see as a contradiction in terms as minorities detest voting alongside them. Besides, they do not trust Mayawati, who has allied with the BJP in the past.
Congress now has support of the Left parties in criticising the manner in which large hoardings of BJP leaders have sprung up all over the state, congratulating Modi for a tough response. “If this isn’t politicization, what is?” Congress and CPI(M) leaders have wondered. This verbal sparring is going to worsen as the elections approach. The BJP, which is far ahead of other political parties in Uttar Pradesh, will use the border tension to take an unassailable lead.
If the BJP manages to keep UP society sufficiently high-strung over the border happenings, it will succeed in making the Muslim vote, which is about 17 percent in the state, irrelevant. The party has realised, after Bihar, that it’s the Muslim vote that forges unity against it and if it can be split the rest is a cakewalk. A pollster confidently told this writer, “The lead of the BJP will grow as the elections come closer.”
This state is trickier, but being a border state it cannot really immunise itself to the happenings on the other side. Before the first shot was fired from across the border, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seemed ahead. All the polls were showing traditional parties fighting to remain relevant against the rising tide in favour of AAP. Since then there has been some erosion caused by serious infighting in AAP plus the decision of cricketer and big mouth Navjot Sidhu, to float his own party. A few days before the surgical strikes, there was no real excitement about what would happen across the border. “We can tell you categorically that Punjab will not be impacted by tension at the border,” claimed an academic at an institute in Chandigarh. Congress leader Amarinder Singh sensed the implications of what was being attempted more when he travelled to the border areas and found that people there had been relocated to other areas. He wondered why this was happening in Punjab and not in other border states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. He also wondered how people had been shifted without mobilisation of forces at the border. Something did not seem right to him.
The Akali and BJP alliance is on a losing wicket, but no one undermines the tremendous ability of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal to stave off anti-incumbency. The rising tension at the border and the fact that a Sikh DGMO is leading India’s fight against Pakistan is bound to give a bounce to the coalition.
The China factor
When Modi spoke about human rights violations in Baluchistan and Gilgit in PoK, he was also sending a veiled warning to the Chinese government that he does not take kindly to its colossal investment in the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Is it a coincidence that the long corridor links Gwadar port in Baluchistan through PoK to Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China? India, by raising the issue of human rights violations in Baluchistan, is actually touching a sensitive issue. In past weeks, the Chinese and Pakistani governments have made some attempts to mollify the restive Baluchi agitationists by announcing industries which will be set up there, but these are still early days. The Pakistani Army leadership has been claiming that India is challenging the CPEC and the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has promised to protect it with the last drop of blood. The Chinese are upset about how CPEC, that is part of the One Belt and One Road (OROP), has landed in a mess. They do not want their investment to go bad and they are trying to work with both countries to ease the tension.
The Pakistan PM has denied a report in Dawn suggesting the civilian leadership was asserting itself against the army and demanding that the Kashmiri militant groups be arrested. The report claimed that the Chinese were upset with the support Pakistan was seen to be providing terrorists and they wanted Islamabad to change course. Although this has been denied, there is plenty in the report to suggest its authenticity. The Indian government has not taken a firm position on the report, but would be happy with the way Pakistan is being questioned by even allies.
This was reflected in the manner in which the countries of the South Asian region responded to the call from New Delhi to boycott the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit scheduled to take place in Islamabad in November this year. Afghanistan and Bangladesh backed India’s stand that Pakistan has to stop promoting terrorism. Afghan President Abdul Ghani has alleged that the neighbour is the cause of all their problems and it has to stop supporting violent extremists belonging to the Taliban. By aggressively aligning with India they are making it clear that they would not be averse to military cooperation with Indian defence forces when the International Security Forces led by the US begin to withdraw completely. The US Army, though, has said it will stay longer to protect its assets in Afghanistan.
The report claimed that the Chinese were upset with the support Pakistan was seen to be providing terrorists and they wanted Islamabad to change course. Although this has been denied, there is plenty in the report to suggest its authenticity. The Indian government has not taken a firm position on the report, but would be happy with the way Pakistan is being questioned by even allies
In some ways the Indian strategy mirrors a thesis propounded in a paper authored by William Dalrymple for Brookings Institution where he claims that the violent contestation in Afghanistan is the direct outcome of the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. This is twisted logic, but there are many takers for this argument in Washington and London. It seems this view is gaining acceptance in India’s strategic community too!
The other major strategic intervention that the Indian government attempted to do was to see whether it could create a rift between Russia and China. India was unhappy that Russia had signed a defence treaty with Pakistan and was also engaged in a military exercise with it. Russia, which has been a major defence supplier for India, was quick to clarify that it was an anti-terrorism exercise and it was not condoning any attack on an Indian Army base. In fact, it criticised the terror attack and also underlined that it originated from Pakistan. This satisfied mandarins in South Block for the time being, but there is a recognition that all is not well between the two countries. It’s a view that would please the US government which wants India to distance itself from Russia. However, the view in Delhi is that Russia and China are quite tight when it comes to their strategic objectives and they are unlikely to respond to Indian exertions. It will be interesting to watch how these dynamics play out in the forthcoming BRICS summit in Goa.
To reiterate, there is plenty that is riding on Modi’s attempt to make India a hard State. Only time will tell whether it will go boom or bust!