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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Is Mani Shankar Aiyar right?

On a Pakistani TV channel debate, irrepressible Congress politician, Mani Shankar Aiyar, is reported as having said, “The first and the foremost thing is to remove Modi. Only then can the talks move forward. We have to wait for four more years. They (panelists) are all optimist and that we can move forward when Modi sahab is there, but I don’t think so.”
To confess, this author was one among whom Aiyar characterizes as ‘optimist’. In an article appraising Mr. Modi’s visit to Kashmir while he was electioneering early last year, the argument expressed was that Mr. Modi would be concentrating on his neo-liberal agenda in case he were to come to power. This would entail a period of stability, with its implications of relative peace with Pakistan. It would also help him further his ideological agenda, by over throwing his anti-minority image and thereby concentrating on a subtle makeover of the rest of India.
The optimist assumption that India could be more responsive to Pakistan since Mr. Modi as a ‘hindu nationalist’ did not have to watch his flanks and back has proven false. Apparently, Mr. Modi’s reference to his 56 inch chest is not enough for him to reach out to Pakistan, despite a promising beginning in bringing over Mr. Sharif to his swearing in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan. This was seen as a coup for Mr. Doval, his new national security manager. Even so, both felt the need to first flex muscles, so as to suitably impress the Pakistani brass. From a position of strength thereafter, they could presumably then pursue a more placatory Pakistan policy.
The search for this position of strength has proven elusive. The grounds for this had been laid by his predecessor government. By about 2013, recognizing the diminishing marginal utility of stalling talks since Mumbai 26/11, it had been contemplating mending fences but wanted to wait it out till elections. In his very next move - the cancellation of foreign secretary talks last August - Mr. Doval put paid to a promising beginning. Thereafter, the army was given the tacit go ahead to activate the Line of Control. The deterrence message was broadcast loud and clear with two back to back military exercises in early summer, of a pivot corps and a strike corps. The year is to culminate in yet another Command exercise that though unnamed yet, is expected to be the largest this decade.
The casualty in all this has been Nawaz Sharif. He has been the voice of the pro India constituency in Pakistan. However, India having been once bitten is twice shy. Sharif’s credibility has been limited by his showing in the Kargil episode. Therefore, India is attuned to the thinking in Rawalpindi. It may be right on this, since Sharif’s national security adviser is now a former military man. The message is that if there is to be a meeting of national security advisers of the two states, as Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif agreed to at their meeting on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Ufa, Russia, then the military there prefers a uniformed interlocutor.
It is clear that the Pakistani brass has been unimpressed by Mr. Modi and Mr. Doval’s show of strength. It has made gains in Afghanistan, so much so that there are reports of Pakistani agents directing the fighting for Kunduz by the Taliban. It has reached out to the new Afghan regime, ending Karzai’s pro India tilt. It has presented itself as useful for a renewed peace process with the Taliban, by offering its assistance. This has made it relevant once again for the US, seeking a way out of Afghanistan, now that the Iraq front has been set alight by the IS. It has taken on the extremists within Pakistan, best evidenced by the reduction in terror attacks in KP. The talk has been for normalizing Pakistan as a nuclear state, with some caveats though. This provides a positive backdrop to the trip to Washington by its Chief Raheel Sharif.
Further, it has faced off with the Indian military on the Line of Control. Its control of the Rangers in Pakistan has enabled it to stand up to the BSF in the abutting border belt. More importantly, Pakistan’s foreign secretary has unmistakably let on that its tactical nuclear weapons are intended to deter India’s launch of ‘cold start’ operations. Drawing on its nuclear cover, it has continued its subconventional operations, expanding the scope mid-year to Udhampur and the adjacent plains in Gurdaspur. That it continues to have a finger the pie in the Valley is apparent from the martyrdom of a colonel.
It is quite obvious that Pakistan is playing with fire. But then little else can be expected from a military dominated polity. It has little to lose, being perpetually poised on the failed state status. With the new kid on the block - the IS – there are portents of worse to come. An analyst who was in the team that had at the turn of the nineties, rightly as it turned out, predicted Pakistani meddling in Kashmir under the semi-fictional scenario, Operation Topac, has painted a grim picture of an IS inclined Pakistani state expanding the scope of meddling to the rest of India.
Manmohan’s cliché that India cannot change its neighbours means that India cannot change its geographical location. It should not be read to mean that India cannot change Pakistan’s military-set self-destructive course. As a regional power with global power aspirations, it needs to first exercise its power in influencing its region. Talking about a united front against terrorism at global for a, such as most recently Mr. Modi’s address at the G20 in Turkey, can only be taken plausibly if India sets its regional house in order first. It can only then think of rushing off to tame the IS.
From the foregoing discussion of Mr. Modi’s year and more in office, it is clear that such an exercise of power cannot be military. Firstly, it has not succeeded for at least thirty years and currently is not succeeding either. Secondly, it is risky. A bunch of terrorists can potentially set of a nuclear conflagration. It would be too late to talk nostalgically of gentlemanly South Asian wars and subcontinental maturity and strategic good sense. Thirdly, the Bihar elections suggest that Mr. Modi is on notice that neither his economic nor his ideological plank is appealing for voters. If he is to have a second innings - and being young enough he can aspire so - he has to change tack.
Giving Mr. Modi the benefit of doubt even if he wanted the situation to turn out better, his support base has had other things on its mind. As seen over the last year and half, he has squandered an opportunity for taking Manmohanomics a step further – assuming that is the right direction for the economy - by allowing his supporting pseudo-cultural formation having the run of the place. Its affect in Kashmir has been in communal tension in Rajouri and more visibly the arson that led to the death of a Kashmiri truck driver over the ‘beef’ issue. Politically, the BJP half of the coalition in Kashmir has yet to unveil its agenda fully.
Clearly, the direction Mr. Modi’s must head is stark. Rein in Hindutva and concentrate on economics. The latter necessarily involves keeping Pakistan alongside. This by corollary means his next visit to the Valley must be for more than doling out money. He has four years on his side to reset course. But then, as someone has said that would be ask for a change in his stripes. Maybe on that count, Mani Shankar Aiyar unfortunately may just be right. 

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