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South Asia: on the brink again

You cannot prevent and prepare for war at the same time, counselled Einstein. But this is what India and Pakistan are doing right now. As I write this, a day after India claimed to strike deep inside Pakistani territory in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a claim rejected by Islamabad, the neighbours are almost at war, claiming to have brought down each other’s fighter jets. All civilian air traffic over a number of airports in north India and in Pakistan, including flights between the two countries, have been grounded.

The respective civilian and military leadership in both countries has been holding high-level meetings as it contemplates the dangerous escalation – unprecedented since the 1999 war over Kargil – and the uncharted path ahead.

The day after the exultations in the myriad television studios and on social media over what the Modi government and many of its acolytes proclaimed as ‘Surgical Strikes 2.0’, the mood in India is sombre. The reality of the seriousness of the situation and what may unfold in the event of a full-scale conflagration is beginning to sink in. This only serves to illustrate how portentous brinkmanship by unscrupulous politicians, ahead of a critical election, can easily get out of hand and lead to potentially catastrophic consequences.

Under siege from a combative opposition led by a resurgent Congress that has single-mindedly gone after the BJP government and its dreadful performance on virtually every front – from the demonetisation- and GST-hit economy to the unemployment crisis to the farmers’ distress. Added to the regime’s woes is the stink over the Rafale fighter jets deal, favouring India’s richest business family, very close to Modi.

The continuing disclosures by India’s most respected newspapers like The Hindu, revealing how the Prime Minister’s Office sidestepped the defence ministry and the army to deal directly with the French government in the deal involving billions of rupees have only added credence to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s relentless refrain that ‘chaukidar chor hai’ (the self-anointed guard of India’s resources is himself a thief!)

That the party is over for the BJP became starkly clear in the stunning defeats it sustained in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Responding swiftly to the shifting political landscape and groundswell of anger against the most media-savvy government in history, PM Modi has taken several strategic measures over the past month or two to turn the tables on the opposition, setting a whole new narrative ahead of the 2019 polls.

The move to offer 10 percent reservations to all – for those not covered by quota on the basis of caste given to the Dalits and other backward communities – through an unthinkable constitutional amendment within 12 hours was clearly a masterstroke, leaving much of the opposition speechless and clueless. The opposition was forced to fall in line and vote for the government move on the 10 percent quota; no one could afford to strike a discordant note and face an angry electorate in elections that are less than month and a half away.

That was clearly not enough for Modi, who cannot countenance losing an election at this stage of his career. He is determined to win somehow, no matter what the cost for the nation or for peace and stability in the region. He had to make it certain that come May 2019 it is him, and not his challenger Rahul Gandhi, who once again takes the oath of office at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill in Delhi.

The unprecedented attack on the CRPF contingent killing 40 troops at Pulwama in Kashmir couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. No wonder many on both sides of the border, including Raj Thackeray no less, suspect it to be a false flag aimed at helping desperate politicians win elections. As Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to reason, if anyone paid attention, why would Pakistan resort to such an attack at a time when it was all set to host an all-important friend and ally, namely Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

Whoever orchestrated and staged the Pulwama attack, it was quickly hijacked and milked cleverly by those in power – a la Gujarat 2002 – whipping up hate and jingoistic sentiment in the country and leading to hundreds of attacks on Kashmiri students and merchants as well as Indian Muslims.

Modi himself vowed to avenge Pulwama repeatedly at his electoral rallies across the country, talking of giving a “free hand” to the armed forces – as if his predecessors had ever restrained them – and setting the stage for an inevitable showdown with Pakistan.

Whatever happened in Balakot – wherever that is, in Rajouri in Indian-administered Kashmir or in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – it has dangerously escalated the situation. The two nuclear-armed rivals with a long and bitter history of perpetual conflict, and worse, are locked in a hair-raising, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The fate of 1.5 billion people of South Asia hangs by a thread. What would it take for India and Pakistan to step back from the brink in the interest of peace and stability in the region and wellbeing of their billion and half people and talk and resolve their issues like mature adults?

What is reassuring is the fact that, despite the relentless warmongering and madness seen in television studios and at political rallies, there are enough sane minds on both sides who know only too well what a war between the South Asian giants could entail.

Imran Khan, who has many friends and fans in India, has added several inches to his stature by reaching out to the neighbour at a time when the war-war sentiment on both sides is dangerously high. He has demonstrated immense courage and maturity by striking a conciliatory note and calling for better sense and restraint on both sides at a time like this.

Indeed, if anyone has the potential to sincerely engage and do business with India, it’s this unconventional politician. India would do well to accept his hand of friendship extended with genuine sincerity. By refusing to engage the saner elements in Pakistan, the Modi government is only helping the extremists.

Of course, the last thing a cash-strapped Pakistan wants right now is a debilitating and immensely costly war with India. But this is not going to be a picnic for India either. With a struggling economy and multiple other crises facing the country, India can pay an incalculable price if its adventurous rulers decide to take a shot at quick political glory.

However, if the lessons of all the Indo-Pak wars, including the last showdown over Kargil, are any guide, all wars are easy to start but hard to end. Besides, if politicians think military adventures or even mere muscle-flexing could help them win elections, they are grievously mistaken. Let’s not forget that despite the success of Kargil and the spiel of ‘India Shining’ campaign, Vajpayee, a much wiser leader from Modi’s own party, lost the 2004 elections to Sonia Gandhi’s Congress.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary hero of the World War II against Hitler’s Germany, lost elections to Labour’s Atlee. So military adventures are no guarantee of electoral glory. When nuclear powers face off, there are no winners – only losers all around.

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "South Asia: on the brink again," The news. 2019-03-01.
Keywords: Political sciences , General elections , Indian government , Strategic measures , Opposition parties , Leadership , Imran Khan , Narendar Modi , Kargil , India , Pakistan