The 30-year-old proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) continues, with the situation changing marginally and a degree of stabilisation achieved in the security scenario.
However, such a situation has been witnessed in J&K several times before, always awaiting the next steps which somehow remain elusive primarily due to the lack of a well-thought-out strategy, the unpredictability due to Pakistan's active interference and continued mounting alienation.
While the security forces need to be complimented for neutralising a large number of terrorists in Kashmir and maintaining moral ascendancy at the Line of Control (LoC), even they are aware that stability through military domination is but a small facet in the face of public hostility, alienation and separatism.
A long-term strategy encompassing all facets that drive instability and prevent negative surge is mandatory without which we will continue to run at the same spot with marginal progress and all the potential for major setbacks brought on by the initiative of Pakistan and the separatists.
2019 looms and J&K enters it without an elected government in place.
The nation is shortly going to be beset by political parleys that will keep initiatives at a lower end. It is only by mid-2019 or a little beyond that are we likely to see any fresh movement in the form of pro-activeness. If the security situation can continue to remain stable it will give the establishment the time to ponder and strategise.
However, security is not related to terrorist activity alone; it's as much to do with the situation in the streets as we witnessed in 2008, 2010 and 2016.
In other words the adversary and its cohorts in Kashmir's hinterland will seek to destabilise the streets through triggers brought on as a part of the information campaign that they appear to have well under control. Our response in the information domain has been tardy in the absence of any understanding how this has to be done.
However, even more than that it is the triggers that we offer which become issues for the other side to latch on to and exploit.
No one has denied that issues such as Article 370 and 35A are contentious but in the environment that exists, it is obvious that creating triggers through the constant raising of these is going to be counterproductive.
Let us put it this way: These are conflict termination issues and not conflict stabilisation ones. Conflict theory, if applied appropriately, gives us many right answers and begs for patience, understanding and maturity. They can give some psychological advantage in political campaigning south of the Pir Panjal but nothing else.
A question mark over the Assembly elections will arise; whether the time is ripe in tandem with the national elections? No doubt a Governor's administration bereft of heavy political leanings could probably achieve more in development initiatives but surely it cannot be in permanence.
In 1996, the return of democracy was considered the game-changer to remain ahead in international and local perception. That hasn't changed and the earlier the elections are held, the better it will be. What the current governments at the Centre and the state can do in the interim is perhaps to set up a non-partisan body to comprehensively study the current situation.
The Interlocutor's report of 2011 may be useful, but just as a guideline, since the situation has changed quite markedly. Such a study should suggest measures in the short, mid and long terms. That will ensure that whichever party is in power in mid-2019, at least there is a document to immediately work upon.
The debate about Pakistan and its role will be unending. It needs early decision whether Imran Khan is a suitable leader to work with. Pakistan is hoping that the Indian tagline 'terror and talks are incompatible' will erode over time. That is unlikely.
The Pakistan Army is hamstrung by the state of the economy but will not openly hold out an olive branch. Military-to-military talks at the level of DGMOs is an alternative because they are outside the political realm and help build momentum for political parleys if the environment remains incident free.
On the face of it, 2019 does not appear to be a year in which movement in these directions will take place. At best a tenuous peace without an active LoC can be hoped for, but that would depend on Pakistan because any frustration at the lack of movement on the politico-diplomatic front could translate into attempted rogue actions at the LoC, as witnessed in the past.
Governor's rule is the best time for initiatives to counter the ideological threats; a counter campaign has been spoken about for very long and is also underway without much traction. It needs the cooperation of the clergy from the rest of India and also social media managers.
An experiment in one or two districts south of the Pir Panjal would give lessons to act upon. The entire issue of de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation needs a more serious review and much advice lest it boomerangs, but the establishment cannot keep talking of these phenomena and do nothing about them.
In 2011-14 the targeting of sarpanches made security the prime issue and not training plus empowerment. If the panchayat elections are once again allowed to recede to the status of a forgotten phenomenon it will be a tragedy.
An ordinance for empowerment of the panchayats and some movement on training will set the ball rolling towards better grassroots political activity.
The state government needs to seriously consider whether its reliance on numbers, as far as Special Police Officers (SPOs) are concerned, is paying any dividend. The need to also seriously train these SPOs, motivate them through better job description, pay and perks would help considerably in the realm of rural security. Targeting of local policemen and soldiers is not going to vanish overnight. The J&K police has performed admirably in the face of this but now needs to protect its personnel through a revised concept of deployment.
As soon as a newly-elected government comes into place, possibly in mid to late 2019 (depending on simultaneous Assembly elections) there will be pressure once again for reduction of the Army's footprint and return to the LoC and the barracks. Sensitising the polity to the need to persist with the Army until more durable stability is achieved, is the responsibility of the national leadership, as is the need to refrain from caustic content in media of all varieties.
The nature of the civil-military relationship both at the national and state level must continue to engage the attention of the policy makers. That the military's role in such an environment straddles security, stability and psychological confidence-building cannot be wished away. The Army must not be tentative about hearts and minds; only it has the institutional capability to make a difference.
Lastly, the doubts created by the inconsistency regarding the legalities of protection afforded to soldiers remains a serious matter. The nation cannot afford its sword arm being marginalised by legal infirmities.