Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (File Photo: IANS)
By Ali Ahmed
March 29, 2019
New Delhi: In history, ‘chowkidar’ will forever be associated with the 2019 elections. In Prime Minister Modi’s appropriation of the term, it signifies an alert, anti-corruption watchdog, somewhat personified by none other than himself.
Though the term dates to the 2014 elections, when Modi presented himself as out to clean up the stables of United Progressive Alliance’s malfeasance, the term has expanded in its current avatar post-Balakot to depict Modi as the one to be entrusted with national security.
While different people would say differently on Modi’s claim in regard to the first version of the term , the second, recent, version of the term needs detain us longer. This owes to the electoral agenda featuring national security for the first time, distracting from more significant issues as joblessness and farmer’s plight.
To begin with, the Balakot aerial strikes, now considerably politicized, not least because of ruling party first making the claim of 300 dead. The effects of the strikes are not of much consequence. The key question instead is on the outcome of the strikes.
This is yet to play out and would be evident in the coming summer when India would be faced with holding assembly elections in Kashmir. Simultaneous elections to the parliament and assembly being ruled out on security grounds by the election commission, a decision on the assembly elections will be the first challenge facing the new government. Its choice would be dependent on the expectation of voter turnout that would likely be so bleak as to expose the underbelly of Indian democracy.
In case the Modi government is returned to power, it will be happy to postpone assembly elections indefinitely with security indices in support of its decision. Its recent political actions of banning the Jamaat and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front have set the post-national election agenda. The advantage it would seek would be in enabling the military template another summer to wrap up the insurgency.
Since the indigenous wellsprings of insurgency may dry up if another cohort of Kashmiri youth is killed in the bargain, Pakistan is unlikely to watch from the sidelines. The ceasefire violations testifying to an active Line of Control provide it cover to infiltrate terrorists and send in weapons. In short, Modi would have set up the conditions for another Pulwama-like incident.
India’s response – and the Pakistani counter – can both prove escalatory. Having exhausted the surgical strikes option after the Uri attack and forewarned of the escalation potential of aerial strikes by the Balakot-Naushera tit-for-tat exchange, Modi may settle for lobbing missiles across.
The missile threat figured in the immediate aftermath of the Pakistani aerial bombardment in Naushera, on the day following the Indian Balakot strike. Reportedly, India readied its short range missiles for launch, apparently to force Pakistan to treat its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman in their custody, as per the Geneva Conventions and return him safely.
Pakistan, for its part, threatened to hurl back thrice the number of Indian missiles. Elsewhere, the numbers involved have been reported as 9 Indian and 13 Pakistani missiles readied for launch. While there was no indication of the intended targets on either side, these could well have been escalatory in themselves, besides the fact that missiles crossed the Radcliffe line for the first time since their advent in arsenals in the eighties.
Fortunately, President Trump’s second Singapore meeting with the North Korean dictator had aborted by then, enabling the Americans to step in with their class monitor act. In short, the step up the escalatory ladder was avoided.
The question that needs asking is whether the Indian reaction to Naushera – aborted by timely American intervention – and the inevitable Pakistani counter would not have precipitated matters that were already at a boil in the recent crisis? How could the missile strikes have secured India?
The answer is fairly self-evident. A source reported in the media has it that the Indian side was willing to up the ante into the uncertain terrain of missile exchanges merely to force the Pakistanis to treat one of its combatants in Pakistan’s custody in keeping with international humanitarian law. That Pakistan would have had no other choice but to play by the rules of the Geneva Convention since it had released the visuals of the pilot on social media and officially admitted to his capture was overlooked by Indian decision makers.
This over-solicitousness for the well being of the serviceman even when engaged in the life threatening part of his occupation is part of a pattern.
During the surgical strikes, the prime minister admitted in an interview that troops had been asked to return prior to first light irrespective of their task being successful or otherwise. A report on the air force’s aerial strike has it that the air force had similar parameters to contend with in that the planes were not to venture too far on to the other side but to launch a stand-off attack.
This caution is perhaps understandable. With elections approaching, the political decision maker perhaps did not want to hold the can for casualties. The strictures also suggest dampening of escalation possibilities – which is all for the good – but put a question mark on the chest thumping ongoing since then.
More gravely, it indicates that the prime minister and his national security minders are not aware of what military action – essentially a bloody enterprise – entails. They need acquainting with one of the insights of the doyen of military strategists, the great Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote:
Let us not hear of generals who conquer without bloodshed. If a bloody slaughter is a horrible sight, then that is a ground for paying more respect to war, but not for making the sword we wear blunter and blunter by degrees from feelings of humanity, until someone steps in with one that is sharp and lops off the arm from our body.”
Alternatively, it is well nigh possible that the missiles were readied not so much for securing the release of Abhinandan – as the news report has us believe – but as cover to follow up on any Pakistani counter to Balakot.
In the event, firstly, the readying of the missiles did nothing to deter the Pakistanis – if they picked up the messaging – and, secondly, India did not follow through with the launch. The missiles-to-help-free-Abhinandan story in this reading is a post-facto rationalization, meant to kill two birds with one stone: one, take credit for Pakistan’s release of Abhinandan, and, two, to explain the climb down from missile readiness to missile stowage.
This has implications for the future.
The scores of the Balakot-Naushera episode are not unambiguously in India’s favour. Pakistan by its brazen daylight attack forced a draw of sorts on a more powerful adversary. To realists, this required India to have upped-the-ante, for, not having had the last laugh, it has instead conceded the moral ascendancy to Pakistan.
If Modi returns to power, to compensate for this, he – more likely than not – will overreact to the next terror outrage. This can potentially set the region afire, as there is a nuclear button at an uncertain rung up the escalation ladder.
The second post election possibility needs examining. In case of a change in government, there is likelihood that anticipating a foreign policy shift Pakistan may hold its horses in Kashmir. This would prevent the triggering event; thereby allowing the new government to conduct the elections – even if the president’s rule is extended by another six months in Kashmir. A different direction in the Kashmir and Pakistan policy may follow.
This is a policy shift which even Narendra Modi if re-elected can equally choose to pursue. Now that he has demonstrated his strength, he could opt for the softline – of parallel though separate talks with Pakistan and Kashmir.
It is apparent that there are other ways to beget national security. Hopefully, the next government – of whichever hue – would choose the path that less imperils national and regional security.
(The writer is a security analyst, who has served in the Indian Army and the UN )
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