A fresh start is urgently needed in Jammu and Kashmir, and with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A re-elected government having an overwhelming mandate with national security at the core of its campaign must reflect back on its success and failure in security policy, combine that with the emerging strategic environment and work out its priorities for the “break in” period of its next incumbency. NDA-2’s experience and the current international security situation would demand priority for Pakistan and Afghanistan as the two core domains for India’s security policy, both in the external sphere. Indirectly connected to both is Jammu and Kashmir, which is essentially internal. The combined issues will take up much of the time of the new government, for which the approach needs to be right after the intricacies of the linkages are fully appreciated. It in no way discounts that the course of Sino-Indian relations too will occupy very high priority, but this isn’t about competing priorities alone; it is more about the immediacy of deliberations.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s serious attempts to pull out of Afghanistan and not fight “other people’s wars” there has been little progress, and Pakistan’s significance has once again been enhanced as facilitator of any potential US agreement with the Taliban. The situation in the Middle East in relation to the escalating tension between the US and Iran will prevent any further focus on this for some time. Currently, the prime issues relate to the US focus on ceasefire, direct Taliban talks with the Afghan government and future status of a Taliban-led Afghanistan not hosting any terror groups. This does not take into account some other intractable issues, like the future status of the large Afghan National Army and police, which have borne heavy casualties. The prospects of peace appear slim in the near term but prop up Pakistan’s strategic status. India has invested much in Afghanistan and reaped less in comparison. Pakistan of course would be the happiest to see a dilution of India’s relevance in Afghanistan, and will work towards that. The new Indian government has to review its relative success in Afghanistan and reinvent India’s obvious relevance. Should it change tack and have some parleys with the Taliban at the cost of its strong ties with the Afghan national government? These are difficult decisions, but the fact that US special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad has visited New Delhi twice this year and the joint US-India decision to retain Afghan gains over the last 18 years, point to India remaining embedded with its current policy and not risking something it may not be able to handle in the unpredictable scenario unfolding.
Pakistan is not sure whether it should be happy with the return of Prime Minister Narendra Modi or otherwise. While Imran Khan may have expressed some positive sentiments about the possibility of a resolution of J&K and betterment of relationship under Mr Modi, the intellectual discourse coming out of Islamabad points to the dangers of a politically stronger and much more confident Prime Minister Modi. Sherry Rehman, the president of Pakistan’s Jinnah Institute, wrote on its website: “Both sides would profit from sitting down, even informally, to discuss ways to prevent a repeat of the February crisis. From thereon, the way forward remains a joint commission that can institutionalise talks on resolving key issues like Kashmir, terrorism, trade, climate change and visa regimes.” Mr Modi’s first tenure as Prime Minister did look towards such a policy. In fact, there can be no denying that he bided his time for over a year and then took the initiative in mid-2015. The response from Pakistan was in the form of Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota. The NDA-2 government made adequate efforts to communicate that talks were always possible but not with the backdrop of continuing terrorist attacks. Pakistan then attempted to alter the narrative by claiming that internal security issues involving Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other so-called unfriendly terror groups were under the sponsorship of India. Has anything changed as far as Pakistan is concerned? On one hand, there is talk of appointing a national security adviser so that equivalence is available to engage with India’s NSA Ajit Doval, whose guts Pakistan detests. At the same time, just as counting day progressed in India, Pakistan tested its 1,500-km Shaheen-II SSBM and to drive it in, termed the firing “training”; projecting that the missile was well past the testing stage and a part of Pakistan’s arsenal to intimidate India. Pakistan continues to remain a functioning paradox among nations, for ever on financial bailout packages but unprepared to change the circumstances which have brought about misery to its people. Currently under international scrutiny and pressure, it is perhaps willing to walk a different talk but unwilling to rein its marauders in or exert control over them. Some noise in this regard has been heard but insufficiently convincing that this isn’t anything more than the tactical ruse implemented with the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in the past. NDA-3 need not be tempted by any of this since there is insufficient demonstration of sincerity. It is also agreed that a face-saving window is what Pakistan may need at this juncture without abjuring from sponsoring the proxy war in J&K. We yet have time before the J&K Assembly elections. Pakistan will have ample time to demonstrate how far it is willing to go in the pursuit of peace. Although the absence of violence is never considered peace, if J&K is free of violence and in a given acceptable timeframe the political and security establishments have enough evidence of a Pakistani pullback, perhaps NDA-3 could review its next steps.
What should NDA-3 do with J&K? There are too many things which have become old wine; a review — and a thorough one at that — is called for. No dilution of security operations is advocated at this stage. However, tweak the concept and nothing else, and let the situation pan out.
There is a comparative lull; infiltration attempts are few and far, the Line of Control is not on fire, street turbulence is low, rhetoric too is limited and finances seem to be running out; public stamina seems to have also taken its toll after three years of incessant violence.
If this assessment is correct, the government must work towards elongating this window and do nothing which will shorten it. This is not the time to trigger any sentiments but use it to build some modicum of political consensus, political differences and aims notwithstanding. At the least an effort should be made to start building more trust between J&K’s regions; their division is not a solution. Prime Minister Modi is himself an advocate of better communication with the people; he has adequately demonstrated this with his recent acceptance speech. It’s time to let fears and suspicions rest and effective communication take its place.
With all the above in place, let there be no doubt that preparations for the worst be in place. After all, another Pulwama could well be in the making. It would be a folly to imagine that permanent peace has returned to J&K. Far from it. There are miles to go before anything like that can even be imagined.