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October 11, 2016

Surgically yours – India and Pakistan are on the cusp of a new phase

A week after India announced the success of its “surgical strikes” against terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, contrarian voices are beginning to be heard. Some of these have taken inspiration from the Pakistan government, which maintains that the “surgical strikes” were, in effect, routine cross-border firing and that, at most, there were only three or so casualties. The attempt to seriously downplay the claims of the Indian army is understandable. Pakistan cannot readily admit, officially at least, that it hosts facilities for armed jihadis to cross the LoC and attack India. Neither, for that matter, can its army afford to lose face by admitting that the enemy crossed the LoC and delivered a few carefully directed blows. No wonder Islamabad’s complaint to the United Nations lacked any real sincerity and was more for the record.

Pakistan’s predicament is understandable, not least because it doesn’t want the issue of cross-border terrorism to attract too much international scrutiny. Less understandable is some of the tut-tutting inside India. The Congress, for example, has spoken in two voices. On the one hand, it was quick to rally behind the government after the initial announcement, while making it clear that the cross-LoC raids weren’t unprecedented. However, once it was evident that the “surgical strikes” were also accruing political dividends for the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, it fell back on a demand to seek “substantive proof” that the raids were indeed as audacious as the official machinery claimed.

The Congress hasn’t made the same mistake it did in 1999 when its spokesmen – Kapil Sibal, in particular – made unending carping noises at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government during the Kargil conflict. However, it clearly wasn’t happy endorsing the Modi government, particularly since there was an implication that the response of the two United Progressive Alliance governments to Pakistan-sponsored acts of terror – including the carnage in Mumbai in 2008 – lacked sufficient teeth. Consequently, the Congress has willy-nilly attached itself to that section of the media and political class which is both sceptical of the veracity of the “surgical strikes” and critical of its so-called politicization for partisan ends. This position has nothing to do with a predetermined policy towards Pakistan and anti-terrorism. In the interregnum between the attack on the army camp at Uri and the retaliation across the LoC, the government was constantly taunted by its critics for not managing a sufficiently muscular response. Modi’s speech to the BJP gathering in Kozhikode, for example, was widely debunked as empty grandstanding. Indeed, The Telegraph, in a misjudged bout of even-handedness, attached greater importance to an interview with the Pakistan high commissioner to India than to Modi’s speech to his party. Yet, when machismo was in evidence with the raids across the LoC, there was criticism of Modi for war-mongering and even nudging India towards a nuclear war with Pakistan. Today, even the reality of the “surgical strikes” is being questioned as India gradually reverts to competitive politics-as-usual.

Inconsistency is a charge that can quite legitimately be made against governments in the conduct of international relations, and more so if it involves a measure of armed conflict. Israel, for example, has acquired a formidable global reputation for its low threshold of tolerance to terror attacks. Yet, its tactical approach has been marked by considerable flexibility, even in the matter of negotiating with terror groups for the exchange of prisoners. And while it is never averse to cross-border retaliation, the timing of these exercises is governed by circumstances. Indeed, steely determination (that includes unrelenting vigilance) coupled with patience has been the hallmark of Israel’s fight against asymmetric warfare and terrorism.

As a people, Hindus have rarely displayed exemplary resolve, and this casualness has often intruded into national security. The strategic doctrine of Pakistan has, since its formation in 1947, been crafted with a blend of tactical opportunism and unwavering hostility towards India. The hostility is based on a wariness of Hindus and a fear that India will stop at nothing to hobble Pakistan. The memories of the 1971 humiliation and the loss of East Pakistan still rankle the establishment in Pakistan, both civilian and military, and have added to its determination to carry the fight into India, with Kashmir as a permanent point of friction. India’s response has, alas, never been as consistent.

While it is true that Indira Gandhi capitalized on the Pakistan military’s colossal mishandling of East Pakistan’s struggle for regional autonomy to pave the way for the creation of Bangladesh, it was the army crackdown on the Awami League in March 1971 that created the grand opening. Yet, even after the victory, India fell back on magnanimity during the Simla talks of 1972. Having been persuaded by her own advisers not to recreate another Treaty of Versailles, Indira Gandhi gave Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto a face-saver on Kashmir. While the Simla Agreement has certainly prevented the dispute from being internationalized, it has not stopped Pakistan from believing that this unfinished task of Partition is pending. India’s commitment to a stable, united and democratic Pakistan is unquestionably noble, but that hand of friendship has never been truly reciprocated. From encouraging the Khalistan movement to organizing periodic jihads in the Kashmir Valley, not to mention nurturing Islamist terrorism in the rest of India, Pakistan has taken advantage of its proximity to the West to keep the heat on India. The odd bouts of bonhomie that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif also partnered have invariably been woefully short-lived. A policy of reasonableness (if not friendship) towards India, it would seem, lacks social and political sanction in Pakistan.

On his part, Modi began his innings with a belief that he could do business with Nawaz Sharif. That optimism suffered a reality check with Pathankot, Uri and the Kashmir troubles. Consequently, he has recalibrated India’s response to a difficult neighbour. Diplomatically, he has enlarged a bilateral dispute into one that also embraces the misgivings Bangladesh and Afghanistan have regarding Pakistan. The cancellation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad marks a foreign policy departure. India has also signalled its intention to keep all options open on the longevity of the Indus Waters Treaty. Second, Modi has opened up a new front by announcing India’s solidarity with the movement for an independent Balochistan. India has let it be known that it will exploit all the fault lines in Pakistan to its benefit, just as Islamabad has been doing for many decades inside India. Finally, Modi has for all practical purposes junked the doctrine of strategic restraint that, unfortunately, Pakistan misread as evidence of India’s own shortcomings.

Pakistan and, for that matter, a section of India’s political class have often believed that anti-Pakistan moves must necessarily be tempered for fear that they could create complications within the large Muslim minority. I believe this wariness was unfounded because many of the emotional links of India’s Muslims with Pakistan were blunted after 1971. If there is a pro-Pakistan lobby, it exists only among the separatists in the Kashmir Valley. In any case, not being electorally dependant on any substantial Muslim support, Modi enjoys much greater elbow room than his Congress predecessors. Perhaps Pakistan knows this too and may recalibrate its India policy accordingly.

After the “surgical strikes”, India and Pakistan are on the cusp of a new phase in their undeclared war. How this will shape out depends quite significantly on how Islamabad digests the new Indian approach.

This article first appeared in TheTelegraph.

Swapan Dasgupta is the Director of India Foundation. Views expressed are his own.

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