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Monday, September 08, 2014

India's Kashmir Strategy

What is Mr. Modi's Kashmir strategy?
An easy answer to the question posed in the title is that Mr. Modi is out to win the J&K elections due soon. The proof is in his recent cancellation of talks with Pakistan after a promising start at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan. This, if Mani Shankar Aiyar is to be believed, is him playing to the gallery in Jammu. With the predictable response in the Valley being the opposite, perhaps leading to a wider boycott of polls than hitherto with even mainstream parties joining in, votes from south of Pir Panjal and Ladakh could enable the BJP to take the assembly in Srinagar.

In this narrative, the assembly, as successor to the constituent assembly that dissolved itself over sixty years ago, then goes on to recommend rescinding of Article 370. BJP's absolute majority in parliament can then enable it to pull off one of the Sangh Parivar's long standing demands, even if one that its political front, the BJP, has often fought shy of acknowledging in its manifesto.

This would amount to a coup that the BJP, even with Mr. Modi at the helm, may be unable
 to pull off. Therefore, it is unlikely that this is the trajectory that the BJP has outlined for
 itself, though it makes for a good stick to beat it with. Nevertheless, being wary of its intent
 and anticipation action is useful, in order to be forewarned if not forearmed. After all, Mr. Modi
 has proven adept at action; notice his invitation to Pakistan and its cancellation that has
left all bemused in its wake.

Nevertheless, a less ambitious agenda can be attributed to Mr. Modi. Since economic advance
is his advertised aim, it is unlikely he would like to jeopardise it with unnecessarily provocative
action that could derail the calm in Kashmir. While he may like to capture the assembly in
Srinagar, as is the wont of any politician, it may be for keeping a hand on the lid. And more
expansively, perhaps set the stage for trifurcation, so as to restrict the Kashmir problem to Kashmir.

Currently, the expectation is that the situation could worsen on the departure of the US from
Afghanistan. It has long been reckoned that this will enable the region to revert to its pre-US
presence days. The contest of the two states in proxy war in Afghanistan, possibly incipient
already, will likely see a spillover into Pakistan, perhaps already manifest. Pakistan, wishing to
pay-back, may stir things up in Kashmir. A new dimension has been added by Zawahiri pitching
in with his invite to the subcontinent's would-be jihadists.

Mr. Modi has chosen his NSA well for such an eventuality. Mr. Dowel may be already scheming
on how the rash of these multiple wars is restricted. It would be better to keep the contest by
proxy on the other side. Keeping Pakistan's ISI engaged in Afghanistan and at its own doorstep
in tackling the Pakistani Taliban and the Baluch insurgents, may keep it off India's back.

Alongside, the military is being prepared to posture a readiness to administer punishment.
So even if Pakistan ups-the-ante in Kashmir and elsewhere, it will limit it, as it has traditionally
 done, to keep below India's proverbial tolerance threshold.

A lower projection of this threshold has been sought in the cancellation of talks and the abruptness
in its manner of doing so. This was followed by escalation in trading of ordnance across the
Line of Control and border or 'working boundary', to the extent that in a de-escalatory flag meeting
the two sides agreed not to target civilians. (The subtext of such an agreement, that doing so is
against tenets of humanity and humanitarian law, escapes both sides.)

The message is that India will be less tolerant, particularly of attacks in the hinterland.
 At the LoC its army has the clearance to deliver a 'befitting reply'. Commentators such as the
reliable anti-Pakistani, Bruce Reidel, are warning of dire consequence for Pakistan in case of
any repeats of 26/11, and even another Herat-style attack. Mr. Modi will have to live up to
his 'tough' image in such a case: an additional deterrent for Pakistan's ISI.

In so far as these security measures contribute to deterrence, this military strategy is of a piece
with grand strategy of keeping Kashmir quiet. Whereas the Congress could not deliver with
incentives for 'good behaviour' for either Pakistan or Kashmiris, in part because the BJP was
ever ready to outflank it, the BJP has no such fears. Therefore, there is potential for forward
movement in these stage setting moves. On the surface, therefore, the strategy cannot be
dismissed out of hand.

However, this presupposes that Mr. Modi does not have outlandish aims such as regarding Article 370 in mind. The problem is that an ideological regime can prove irrational. Secondly, impressing Pakistan suitably with Indian power requires investing in Pakistan's strategic good sense. This has repeatedly been found wanting in the past. Pakistan cannot be expected not to test the deterrence strategy. So, it is not a prudent strategy in light of precedence. Third, the 'talks' India has in mind are just that: talks. In its mind's eye these are not about trade-offs over Kashmir. Consolidating its position within and militarily, it sees no reason to negotiate in good faith with a Pakistan going downhill. This can only make the test more likely. Lastly, while the peace lobby in Pakistan can do without the Kashmir baggage, this lobby has been undercut by talks cancellation. Mr. Sharif is in any case under siege. This makes the test ever more likely.

The implication for Kashmir and its people is that they can live with the strategy, till it comes to the test. They would do well to keep out of any arm wrestling between the two states. It can only expand the arc of instability from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. They need bestir themselves only in case an ideological policy plays out in which constitutional distinction of their land is played around with. This is unlikely to be any time soon since in the grand strategic scheme Mr. Modi would like to first entrench himself and legitimize this in a growing economy. Distractions such as Kashmir can wait. Kashmiris cannot have a quarrel with this.

While admittedly their current position under the AFSPA jackboot is not the best place to be, it may be better than possible alternatives, particular when India's strategic chickens come home to roost. Setting themselves up as site for the fallout would be avoidable societal harakiri.

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