Sense and sensibility | Najam Sethi


While in opposition, Narendra Modi built himself as a hawk on Pakistan. But as prime minister of India, he is finding it difficult to practice what he preaches. The burden of government, it seems, exacts a profound sense of sensibility from leaders who have built political careers out of pride and prejudice. Consider.

Mr Modi’s response to the terrorist attack in Gurdaspur was measured. In Pathankot it was restrained. Uri is slightly different. It is the third in a row of increasingly provocative incidents. 18 Indian soldiers are dead. The Indian army is simmering to redeem its “honour” by “surgical” strikes against jihadi camps in Azad Kashmir. The Indian media is baying for blood. New Delhi is desperate to divert attention from the root cause of such incidents, which is the struggle of the Kashmiri people for self-determination in the face of a cruel and repressive Indian state apparatus. But war, even limited war, with Pakistan has never been an option since it acquired nuclear weapons. It wasn’t an option even after Mumbai in 2008. And it isn’t on the cards after Uri. So what can Mr Modi do?

For starters, he can’t afford to be adventurous in the west and lose sight of his two-point core agenda in the east: build on domestic economic growth and focus on becoming part of the US “pivot” to SE Asia against China. But he also can’t risk the wrath of the public by not punishing Pakistan in some way or the other. His recent speech at Kozhikode in Kerala indicates his thinking. He says India will defeat Pakistan in the war against poverty by concentrating on rapid economic development. As a consequence, the argument goes, India will become strong and Pakistan relatively weak. At the same time, India will exacerbate the various regional, ethnic and religious tensions inside Pakistan and isolate it externally so that its collapse is hastened. This will be achieved by a combination of overt and covert means by further extending the Doval doctrine of offensive-defense.

The cancellation of the SAARC summit is a first step in the direction of rupture. It is largely symbolic because SAARC has never amounted to anything more than a catalogue of pious hopes and lost opportunities. It has been inconsequentially cancelled on four occasions in the past. The discussion on how to manipulate trade to Pakistan’s disadvantage is equally insignificant: Pakistan’s exports to India are only about $500m. Only Indian businessmen will suffer because their exports to Pakistan are over $3 b. The discussion on how to twist the Indus Waters Treaty to hurt Pakistan is more ominous. India cannot abrogate the treaty unilaterally without incurring worldwide censure: water is life, and an attack on the life of the people of Pakistan will be rightly construed as an act of barbarous war. But India can tweak it upstream without accountability and make life difficult for Pakistan: by storing, diverting or releasing water at critical times to precipitate limited flooding or famine downstream in Pakistan. Any howls of international protest by the government of Pakistan are likely to be drowned in a wave of public protests against the incompetence and corruption of the domestic regime.

A range of covert operations by proxy will most likely be preferred. These will range from covert financial and military assistance to sub-nationalist, ethnic or religious dissidents in various regions of Pakistan to targeted assassinations of top jihadi anti-India leaders and attacks on the offices of military intelligence agencies and security forces. CPEC and Gwador will be likely targets of disruption too. Urban sprawls like Karachi and Lahore may be most vulnerable to the tactics of terror.

The problem with this covert punitive approach is that it will not be without costs for India too. The Pakistani establishment is certainly not going to sit back and wring its hands in despair. It will open the tap of proxy jihad in Kashmir as in the 1990s and exact a heavy toll where it hurts India the most. It may also consider provoking Muslim sentiment inside India by various overt and covert means.

In the end, both sides will get hurt. But India’s hurt will be relatively more because it has relatively more to win from becoming a world power than Pakistan that is relatively isolated and weak already.

Hopefully, all may not be lost. In principle, mainstream parties in both countries have avowed peace with neighbours, in both theory and practice. The cause of the latest rupture between the two is related to the rise of an intifada in Kashmir triggered by the overly repressive policies of the BJP under Mr Modi. If India’s prime minister is both able and willing to apply balm to the wounds of Kashmiris by taking significant political steps to alleviate their most obvious local grievances, he would also succeed in reopening the door to reconciliation with Pakistan. But this will require a degree of sense and sensibility from India’s ruling establishment that has been woefully lacking so far.