Friday, September 30, 2016

Modi’s travails do not end with ‘surgical strikes’ at Pakistan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains entrapped in his self-cultivated image of being a muscular Hindu nationalist leader. The contradiction needs to be resolved. The starting point lies in diligently addressing the Kashmir problem with a view to find an enduring solution.

The morning after India’s ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control (LOC) at Pakistan appears to augur a brave new world for the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, the gains are almost entirely in India’s domestic politics on Day 1. The world at large remains indifferent.

This works in three ways. One, Modi has addressed the widespread outrage and anger in India over the cross-border terrorist attack on the Indian army base in Uri on September 18.

Two, his government has rallied the domestic opinion, which in turn puts pressure on even the raucous opposition parties to voice support for Modi – reluctantly, cautiously and temporarily though.

Three, Modi salvaged his reputation among the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) core constituency, which believes he will be Pakistan’s nemesis.

Indian “surgical strikes” across the LOC are not taking place for the first time. The difference today is that Thursday’s are multiple strikes and, second, they have been publicized.

The decision to publicize the covert action underscores the tremendous political importance the leadership attaches to the optics in domestic opinion.

Simply put, Modi’s aura of being a forceful leader was threatened with dissipation, and he has taken care to preserve it. The overnight surge of the morale of his acolytes in the social network sites is self-evident.

The president of the ruling BJP Amit Shah claimed in a statement, “It is for the first time (that) in this frontal fight against terrorism, India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri Modi is feeling secure… Today’s strikes signal the rise of a new India…”

It is a clarion call of Hindu nationalist credo with one eye on the upcoming crucial state election in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab next year, which could set the tone for Modi’s prospects of a renewed mandate in the 2019 parliamentary poll.

In the long game, Shah gave a push to the ‘Hindutva’ ideology as the manifesto of the ‘New Indian’. Equally, there’s a Hindu-Muslim dimension to India’s electoral politics.

As days and weeks pass and the autumn gives way to winter, as adrenaline flow slows down, the ramifications of the surgical strikes of September 29 are bound to seep into the Indian consciousness.

For a start, the surgical strikes have caused what a leading Indian security expert and senior editor, Praveen Swamy calls the “meltdown of the long-standing ceasefire on Line of Control in an year that has until now been the most peaceful in a decade”.

Ironically, the agreement on a ceasefire on the Line of Control in 2003 was the finest foreign-policy achievement of the previous BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, because it helped reduce clashes along LOC – and cross-border infiltration too – which immensely helped Delhi to finesse the insurgency in Kashmir.

According to published official data, incidents of exchange of fire across LOC significantly dropped and fatalities actually dropped to zero.

Things are going to change now with the breakdown of the 2003 understanding. This would demand pushing forward troops from their base camps and a new norm of action across LOC by both militaries.

The ‘known known’ will be Pakistan’s reaction. That Pakistan will react to the surgical strikes cannot be doubted. It is a matter of time.

The Pakistani military leadership will not accept the Indian surgical strikes as the ‘new normal’. Nor will Pakistan be dissuaded from the culture of deploying ‘strategic assets’ – non-state actors – in its asymmetric war with India.

The Pakistani behavior across Durand Line for decades testifies to its tenacity to pursue strategic objectives no matter what it takes. Pakistan has continued to project power into Afghanistan in open defiance of US entreaties for the past decade and a half.

When it comes to India, which is regarded as an existential threat, Pakistani military will not countenance any amount of pressure from the international community to detract it from its chosen path.

On the other hand, US is also not in a position to pressure Pakistan because of the crucial importance of the latter’s cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and for the upkeep of American military bases.

If Pakistan redeploys forces to the eastern border, it would hurt US’ priorities vis-à-vis Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which Pakistani military is conducting against terrorist organizations ensconced in North Waziristan in the lawless tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan.

The Zarb-e-Azb’s principal target, Tehreek-e-Taliban, not only threatens Pakistan’s internal security but also provides recruits for the Islamic State, which is trying to get established in the region. In sum, the success of the military operation in North Waziristan impacts international security.

Therefore, when the balance sheet is drawn, it is debatable what India’s surgical strikes hope to achieve. Paradoxically, Indian Army is being called upon to live up to the ‘new normal’.

This would mean not only heavy focus on India’s border with Pakistan (aside fastening internal security), but also means taking the eye off the disputed border with China. Besides, India gets stuck in the groove of a ‘Pakistan-centric’ foreign policy.

The pretensions of the Delhi elite that India’s main foreign-policy challenge lies in matching China’s rise are withering away.  Kashmir becomes the Albatross tying India down, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

This has profound geopolitical implications.

The bottom line: The denouement of the present course to browbeat and confront Pakistan is beyond Delhi’s ability to calibrate.

The ruling circles claim bombastically that Modi is asserting to Pakistan that he is a ‘different leader’ and Pakistan can no longer ‘take India for granted’, that he is showing that the rules of the game are changing and henceforth it’s going to be ‘jaw for tooth’, et al.

In the ultimate analysis, though, Indian Army can take things only thus far and no further. And Modi faces a Hobson’s choice.

A denouement has to be found on the political and diplomatic track – either by engaging Pakistan directly or allowing third-party intervention to bury this ancient quarrel.

India’s diplomatic thrust to ‘isolate’ Pakistan is a road to nowhere in the prevailing power dynamic in regional politics.

Meanwhile, Modi’s ‘development agenda’, on which he secured the mandate to rule would take a beating.

The sharp slump in the Indian stock markets on Thursday can be taken as the writing on the wall if war clouds gather on the horizon.

Just as news broke about surgical strikes along  the Line of Control, Bombay Stock Exchange slid 534.70 points, or 1.84%; India’s National Stock Exchange slid 1.75%, or 152 points.

Clearly, Modi’s travails do not end with surgical strikes. He remains entrapped in his self-cultivated image of being a muscular Hindu nationalist leader. The contradiction needs to be resolved. The starting point lies in diligently addressing the Kashmir problem with a view to find an enduring solution.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.


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