Opinion Columnists 23 Feb 2019 What to do about Pak ...
The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

What to do about Pak? Modi’s dilemma grows

Published Feb 23, 2019, 1:16 am IST
Updated Feb 23, 2019, 1:16 am IST
The government began its retaliation against Pakistan by withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status of Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: File)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: File)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was instrumental in creating a war hysteria in the country after the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14 when he declared that “the time for talks with Pakistan is over, and now action will be taken”. However, in his recent public speeches at Hazaribagh on February 17 and in Varanasi on February 19, he has refrained from mentioning terrorism, Pakistan or the “fire (of revenge) burning in his heart”. Instead, he was back to his old campaign mantra of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”.

There are clear indications of an attempt by the government to de-escalate the anger and hysteria generated after the Pulwama terrorist strike. This is at least partly conditioned by clear indications from the international community that it does not want to see a military conflict erupting between India and Pakistan.

 

The government began its retaliation against Pakistan by withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status of Pakistan. This would give it the freedom to impose punitive duties on imports from Pakistan. It has now decided to starve Pakistan of water by fully utilising the “unutilsed share” of the waters of the three eastern rivers allocated to India under the Indus Waters Treaty. This would reduce the flow of waters in the three eastern rivers of the Indus Basin — the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — while keeping India within the parameters of the Indus Water Treaty. But it would reduce Pakistan’s water supply from these rivers during the lean season. This is nothing new really, and had been announced by Prime Minister Modi in 2016 itself, as well as declaring that “blood and water cannot flow together” after the terrorist attack on the Army camp in Uri.

These measures are certainly better than war, though they would hurt ordinary Pakistani businessmen and farmers rather than terrorist groups operating from Pakistan with the facilitation of the Army and the ISI. However, these steps represent a significantly different response from the imposition of punitive military measures.

The government’s rethink on the initial military bravado is also visible in the India-Saudi Arabia joint statement issued on Wednesday night after the day-long visit of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to India, soon after his visit to Pakistan. It praises the efforts of Prime Minister Modi to forge friendly relations with Pakistan since May 2014 and then talks of India and Saudi Arabia agreeing on the “need for creation of conditions necessary for resumption of comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan”.

US President Donald Trump has also said that “it would be wonderful” if India and Pakistan got along — once again underlining that he does not support a military conflict. He could do little else at a time when he needs Pakistan’s help to extricate the United States and its military forces from Afghanistan and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Though the world kept silent when surgical strikes were carried out against Pakistan in 2016, there is no guarantee that it will look away again if war flares up after the latest outrage. The international situation has changed considerably since then.

When Uri took place, the US did not need Pakistani facilitation in Afghanistan with such urgency as it does now. At that time the US had advised then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to condemn the Uri terrorist attack, though he did not do it. When India attacked some Pakistani forward posts, once again the US played a moderating role and prevented Pakistan from retaliating — in fact Pakistan claimed that the “surgical strikes” had not taken place. If India were to strike against Pakistan in today’s circumstances, enacting the same shadow play again neither can it count on US help nor on a tame response from Pakistan.

These are some of the reasons why the Narendra Modi government has to find a diplomatic route and sell it to the public which is baying for blood. The anger they have unleashed is not going to be assuaged by boycotting Kashmir goods or harassing Kashmiri students studying in various parts of the country. Nor would harsher measures against Kashmiris suffice. The government has to demonstrate that it has brought Pakistan to heel.

Prime Minister Modi must know that there is nothing like an immaculate war. Inevitably there would be casualties and he cannot afford to send body bags of soldiers across India on the eve of the general election. As elections are in the offing, the loss of soldiers’ lives could be seen as the cost to the people of a cynical government hell-bent on its re-election. Therefore, for domestic reasons too, a military option against Pakistan does not seem to be politically prudent.

While inimical forces like Jaish-e-Mohammad were bound to take advantage of the worsening situation in Kashmir, it was also the Narendra Modi government's compulsion to divert public reaction towards Pakistan after Pulwama. Otherwise the terrorist attack would be read as the failure of its Kashmir policy. As the buck stops only with the Prime Minister's Office, the government had to deflect attention away from its policy failures.

However, New Delhi will always be forced to play a weak hand against Islamabad, unless the people of Kashmir can see clear advantage in their relationship within India. Much as Pakistan may try to derail the process of reconciliation and dialogue with the Kashmiris, unless the Central government engages with them politically nothing will ever change on the ground.

With the international and domestic situation forcing it to go on the back foot, the Modi government’s biggest worry would be what to do if another terrorist strike were to take place in J&K before the polls.

That is why it is wrong to conclude as some political pundits have done that the Pulwama terrorist attack has given PM Modi the trigger to take a clear shot at re-election. His aggressive statements might yet come to haunt him in the election campaign and indeed in the election itself. The international community could provide him with an honourable exit. The ban imposed by Pakistan on Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniyat, two orgnaisations associated with Hafiz Saeed (Jaish-e-Mohammad is already officially banned), may be the beginning of such a resolution.

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