Indo-Pak Skirmish And Its Inevitable Political Fallout

In the early 2000s, not long after the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, which took hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but in which India claimed a decisive victory, we invited a hawkish Indian defence analyst and expert over to the magazine that I was then editing. The idea was to get his opinion on India’s preparedness for armed conflict in the region, particularly with the prevailing hostile relations with Pakistan and a potentially hostile and powerful neighbour like China. The expert (who will have to remain unnamed for now) was good. His knowledge was vast and insightful but being a hawk, his lecture and the subsequent discussions were burnished with aggressive posturing with the key point being that India was certainly in a stronger position vis-à-vis Pakistan and with greater political will it could teach an errant neighbour some hard home truths.

It was an invigorating discussion that opened up our fairly young editorial team’s minds to issues of strategy, defence, and armed conflict. But, following the talk, it was the afterglow that seemed take hold of many of my colleagues I remember vividly. Otherwise rational and perfectly reasonable young men and women strutted about the newsroom with aggressive posturing, some loudly lamenting that the Indian government was shying away from confronting Pakistan and that our armed forces should initiate military action against that nation and teach it a sound lesson.

That sort of sentiment seems to be swirling around in India now in the aftermath of the recent skirmish with Pakistan. Last month terrorists believed to be based in Pakistan suicide-bombed an Indian convoy in Kashmir and killed at least 40 security personnel. India retaliated by sending in warplanes to bomb what it claims to be a large terrorist training centre and camp in Pakistan. This was followed by an airstrike by Pakistan and dogfights in which one Indian plane was downed and a pilot captured. The pilot was released by Pakistan, which refuted India’s claims of decimating the terrorist hideout and took the high moral ground by offering peace dialogues with India over the disputed region of Kashmir.

But the main fallout of last month’s conflict was the chest-beating brand of patriotism that it spawned and the political capital that the current regime led by Mr Narendra Modi is drawing out of it. Mr Modi, his colleagues, and supporters have been proudly proclaiming the decisiveness of the Indian attack (never mind that the actual damage may have been much less than the claims that hundreds of terrorists had perished during the attack). Otherwise reasonable people in civil society as well as India’s noisy and colourful media have earned a sort of bragging rights over the skirmish, and some of them have even been baying for Pakistan’s blood. With less than a month left before millions of Indians head towards polling booths to cast their votes in the national elections, this mood is significant.

It is significant because Mr Modi, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies are quite resolved to making the newest incidence of tension between India and Pakistan into an election issue. Dipstick surveys will likely show that the electorate’s faith in Mr Modi has strengthened as a consequence of the conflict. But what may be more important is the impact (or rather the lack of it) on those who politically oppose Mr Modi. In the past few months opposition leaders, including those of the Congress party and a host of other regional groupings, have been trying to forge an alliance aimed at ousting Mr Modi and his party during the coming elections. Several fault-lines, however, have emerged in that endeavour: there is no clear leader of the opposition alliance that can command support of the motley assemblage of parties; the political ambitions of several regional leaders are seen to be colliding against each other; and there is no clear-cut common electoral strategy that seems to have emerged.

More seriously, the opposition appears to be more than just a bit stumped by the wave of nationalistic fervour that Mr Modi and his alliance have drummed up. In the prevailing environment of patriotic pride and hawkishness towards Pakistan expressing any criticism (or even mild differences of opinion) is fraught with the risks of being labelled “anti-national”, which, with elections around the corner, can prove to be disastrous for anyone with political ambitions. Even mild questioning by some Congress leaders of BJP president Amit Shah’s claim that more than 250 terrorists had died in India’s bombing of a site in Pakistan led to counter-attacks by the BJP that labelled the Congress as being anti-India.

The problem for the opposition parties is compounded by the fact that little has emerged from their side in the form of a cogent, coherent strategy that can be part of their electoral campaign. In spite of a plethora of issues that have plagued the Modi regime—lack of jobs; distress in the farm sector; irregularities in a major arms deal such as the one for acquiring Rafale fighter jets from France; and growing insecurity among India’s minorities—besides criticism, the opposition parties haven’t been seen proffering their solutions for such problems. The Congress’ president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is visibly more active politically than he has ever been. In Uttar Pradesh, a state which accounts for the largest number of seats in India’s Parliament and which will play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the elections, the Congress has a new team—Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, and a relatively young leader, Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia—to spearhead its campaign but thus far their impact has been limited.

Part of the problem for leaders in the opposition, specifically in the Congress, is that when Mr Modi changed the rules of contesting elections, they were taken a bit by surprise. Mr Modi fought and won the 2014 elections by aggressive promotion of himself as the prime ministerial candidate; and by making specific promises about progress, development and improvement in the lives of Indians. It was like a presidential election where candidates project their personalities and their individual strengths to garner votes. In contrast, the Congress fought (and lost badly) the 2014 elections without even a declared candidate for the prime ministerial post. Mr Gandhi’s rallies were pale compared to Mr Modi’s thunderous ones. The leaders of the Congress, which is the only other national party of consequence other than the BJP, appear to contest elections the way the party did in the 1980s when it, for the large part, had no real challengers. That strategy is unlikely to work for it any longer.

The audience (read electorate) has changed. Exposure to digital and social media (which the BJP and its supporters deploy much more efficiently than other parties) have made India’s electorate a lot more aware and demanding. In such a context, the Congress’ style of using emotional appeal and the (fast fading) charisma of the Gandhi family can seem anachronistic. Many supporters of Congress point to the elevation and induction of Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, as a sort of trump card that the party could use in the coming elections but the fact is that she is quite untested in active politics—a newbie really if you discount her past activities, which have basically centred around nurturing and visiting the pocket boroughs of her family—her brother’s and her mother’s constituencies in UP.

As for the mainly regional parties that make up the so-called grand alliance of the opposition, none of their leaders enjoys a national stature that can be built or leveraged to position against Mr Modi. In such circumstances, and particularly in the aftermath of India’s skirmish with Pakistan, the advantage as Indians get ready to vote could seem to lie with Mr Modi and his allies.


Indo-Pak Spat Will Sadly Be Milked For Political Gains

In the recent past, particularly the couple of days when tension was at its height between India and Pakistan, if you read only the media publications of those two countries you could have been a victim of schizophrenia, or of extreme bipolar disorder.

The claims and counter-claims about the airborne dogfights, the targets that were allegedly bombed, and the counter-attacks that followed, were so diametrically opposite each other that, if you were an unbiased observer, they would have left you perplexed.

India claimed that its air force had killed hundreds of terrorists believed to be behind mid-February’s suicide bombing in Kashmir in which scores of Indian security personnel died. Pakistan countered by saying its fighter planes had chased away the Indian aircraft and the only damage done was to woods and trees in a deserted area where there were no terrorist camps.

Then when Pakistan shot down an Indian aircraft and captured the pilot and tension began to escalate, the posturing of both sides changed. Pakistan took the high moral ground with its Prime Minister, Mr Imran Khan, offering to have a dialogue with India and releasing the pilot unconditionally. India, on its part, saw this as a huge victory and a cowering down by Pakistan. Meanwhile, a sort of proxy war seemed to be on in both, the social media as well as mainstream media publications, between the two countries. Nationalistic fervour was (and, perhaps, still is) at a peak, and shrill, hawkish screams abounded.

A war between two nuclear-weapon nations is least desirable, and the de-escalation of tensions after the release of the Indian pilot is welcome. Also, it is unlikely that India has, as it claims, decimated a huge terrorist camp in Pakistan. Yet, the problem remains: Kashmir continues, as it has been since Independence in 1947, to be a matter of serious dispute between the two neighbours; and Pakistan clearly is a haven for terror groups, including the dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammed, which repeatedly and regularly attacks and fans violence in the Kashmir Valley where Indian security forces have long maintained a near-military rule. If the recent face-off leads to a saner discussion between the two countries, particularly on the Kashmir issue, it could be a good beginning.

But does India want such a dialogue right now? As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies, head towards national elections, keeping the tension simmering between the two neighbours could actually help them. On 28 February while addressing a gathering of scientists in Delhi, Mr Modi remarked that that a “pilot project”, which was a “practice” just got over, and that the “real project” was yet to happen. It is easy to label Mr Modi’s comments as opportunistic in the context of the coming elections. History across the world shows that incumbent governments often benefit electorally when they demonstrate decisiveness or strength when tensions with an “enemy” state surface.

Yet, it would serve Indians well to remember the genesis of the current face-off: it began when terrorists from across the border launched a suicide attack that killed at least 40 Indian security personnel. That is the crux of the problem. The war against terrorists, who are ostensibly camped in, and perhaps encouraged by, Pakistan has to be a continuous effort that India cannot afford to relent on. But the electoral advantages that Mr Modi and his party might be able to reap from the current skirmish are real. We can expect his election campaign to keep referring to these: the threat of terrorism from Pakistani territory; the pilot (Wing Commander Abhinandan) who is now a hero in India; and a resolve to launch the not-so-cryptic “real project” that Mr Modi mentioned.

There is another disturbing aspect in the current scenario. India’s as well as Pakistan’s media, particularly the mainstream newspapers and TV news channels, have commonly fallen prey to jingoism whenever a conflict with Pakistan arises. You may want to call it healthy nationalism, perhaps. But in today’s scenario where social media plays a huge role in shaping people’s perceptions in both, India and Pakistan, this could have serious consequences. Fake news, doctored videos, and inflammatory comments, are being traded in a free-for-all manner. Many believe that these could heighten the tensions between the two nuclear weapon nations despite the de-escalation that followed the Indian pilot’s release.

The cynical viewpoint is that the ruling regime’s spin doctors could be leveraging all of this to help them in the coming elections. Signs of that, viz. Mr Modi’s and his colleagues’ recent statements, are already visible. Mr Modi came to power with an overwhelming electoral victory in 2014 but on the back of promises that now seem tall. He promised development, progress, and better days for Indians who placed their faith in him, but five years later, at the end of his term, much of those promises remain unfulfilled and the initial euphoria after he came to power turned out to be ephemeral. And, despite their bluster, the BJP and its allies have little to tom-tom about their achievements. In that context, the skirmish with Pakistan could be like a shot in the arm, providing campaigning fodder that could touch the hearts of many Indians.

On the other side too, Prime Minister Khan has been quick to grasp an opportunity to position himself as a mature statesman. His publicly stated willingness for a dialogue with India and the prompt release of the Indian pilot is likely to boost his popularity among his fellow countrymen. Last summer, his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) came to power when it won the largest number of seats in the national assembly but it didn’t manage to get a majority on its own. There were also widespread allegations about rigging by the PTI. Besides, in Pakistan, a hawkish military exerts overwhelming pressure and influence over political regimes and is commonly believed to encourage separatists and terror groups that operate in Kashmir. Yet, Mr Khan too has to resolve to fight the terrorism that breeds in his nation’s territory. A statesman-like image, which he has tried to create for himself recently, wouldn’t hurt.

Hyper-ventilating TV news anchors, and internet and social media trolls in both nations notwithstanding, the crucial need of the hour is not to fan tensions between Pakistan and India but to try and fix ways in which the long-standing dispute over Kashmir and the violent terrorism it has bred can be resolved. For that to happen the leaders of the two nations have to set aside their immediate political interests and agree to move towards non-violent and non-aggressive solutions. Will that happen? Or is it merely wishful thinking?