By Imtiaz Alam
What has so abruptly reversed the Modi government’s consent to a meeting sans the resumption of the dialogue process between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA? With few exceptions, there is much more than what is being played out in the pliant and hostile media in both India and Pakistan.
This time, it seems that haste and utter lack of confidence in each other’s intentions – besides internal political fissures in India – became the immediate cause for such an ill-thought-out cancellation of an otherwise doomed-to-fail foreign ministers’ moot. The excuses for the cancellation of the foreign ministers meeting as quoted by the Ministry of External Affairs of India on September 21 – a day after its confirmation – seem to be an afterthought since the killing of a BSF soldier had taken place two days prior to the acceptance of the invitation. And the postal memorial tickets about Kashmir were issued prior to the Pakistani general elections. The tone and tenor of the Indian MEA’s response was so terrible and clumsy that a former high commissioner of India to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal, tweeted: “IFS does not …take such hasty flip flop decisions. Seems handiwork of ‘muscular’ thinking. More ‘brawn’ than ‘brain’.”
The mood in India was quite hostile, as we had seen during the visit of former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, a minister of the Congress government in Punjab, who was the personal guest of our newly elected prime minister on the latter’s oath-taking ceremony. What could not be digested by the Indian media was Sidhu’s embrace with COAS General Bajwa, and the latter’s offer to open the border for Sikh pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Indeed, this goodwill gesture by Gen Bajwa must have surprised New Delhi since successive Indian governments had been suggesting it to Pakistan for decades.
The authorities in Pakistan were, perhaps, flabbergasted by the tone of Prime Minister Modi’s call to Imran Khan, and his letter suggesting “constructive engagement” was construed as an invitation for dialogue. When Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi mentioned it in his first press conference, he was immediately rebutted for this misconception by the Indian MEA. Not knowing exactly the probable Indian response to an invitation for a ministerial meeting and the Saarc Summit, Prime Minister Khan signed quite a disjointed letter to PM Modi on September 14. The letter proposed a meeting between the two foreign ministers and also invited him to visit Islamabad on the occasion of the Saarc Summit which “will offer an opportunity for you [Modi] to visit Pakistan and for us to restart the stalled dialogue process”.
Those who closely and independently watch Indo-Pak relations could only laugh at the simplicity of PM Khan or those who had drafted a rather simplistic letter. Even in meekly accepting the invitation for the FMs’ meeting, MEA spokesman Raveesh Kumar had clearly rejected the possibility of the resumption of dialogue and a Saarc Summit in an environment of “state-sponsored terrorism”. He was in fact laughed at by reporters on his definition of a meeting-sans-dialogue, even if he noted that the killing of their soldier took place after the letter was received on September 17, and before its partial acceptance two days later.
If the invitation letter from PM Khan was sent in a hurry, without sounding out India’s actual intentions and in disregard of its long-held position regarding “terrorism and talks”, India’s tentative response for the FMs’ meet, and then its accusation-laden rejection, reflected Modi’s typical flip-flop policy towards Pakistan – as so aptly described by some of his sane liberal critics in India.
What is intriguing about the whole diplomatic fiasco is why New Delhi accepted the invitation in the first place and then went back on it – and that too so abruptly and rudely. How is it that one one day the “evil agenda of Pakistan” stood “exposed” and the “true face of [the] prime minister of Pakistan” was “revealed to the world in his few months (sic) in office”. Perhaps, given the height of bellicosity and self-congratulatory eulogy over so-called “surgical strikes”, the Modi government’s acceptance of the FMs’ meet caught it on the wrong foot while it was in the eye of a storm over a most controversial 7.4 billion euro deal for French Rafale fighter jets. The deal was brokered by Modi in his talks with the former French president, Hollande, to benefit billionaire Anil Ambani’s company, in violation of rules, over the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
Coinciding with the revelation by Hollande that “we did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor [Anil Ambani] who was given to us”, Indian Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat issued an extremely provocative statement on September 22 that “it is time” that “we need to take stern action to avenge the barbarism that terrorists and the Pakistan Army have been carrying out”. The purpose seems to be to divert the Indian public’s attention from this mega-corruption scandal. Those who think that the cancellation of the FMs’ meeting was done because of state elections in India are off the mark since Modi has been contesting elections primarily on the Hindutva’s communal agenda with a broad-based appeal for growth and employment.
In the meanwhile, addressing the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) ‘Dharma Sansad’, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Sri Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat declared that “the day is not far (away) when [the] saffron flag will fly atop the Ram Mandir” that is to be built on the debris of Babri mosque. The VHP has convened a national congregation of sants next month to build the Ram temple in 2019 when the Indian elections are to be held. Ironically, the Congress Party has been critical of Modi’s occasional overtures towards Pakistan.
During such a domestic fuss in India, Prime Minister Imran Khan could have avoided his Twitter response – reminiscent of Trump’s erratic tweeting. The Pakistan Foreign Office had responded to the Indian MEA’s tirade in a measured way to keep India on the back foot; we had even offered a joint investigation into the mutilation of the body of an Indian soldier.
But we are in the habit of not being left behind in raising the antes and we don’t hesitate in matching the war of words while flaunting nuclear weapons. It is in Pakistan’s own interest not to heighten tensions with India, and to cool down the eastern front. Let India refuse to talk and let Pakistan continues to respond with talk of peace. India won’t like to offer a helping hand at a time when we remain under international scrutiny on terrorism and Afghanistan. It is inclined to respond in the “same coin” in any way and anywhere as Gen Bipin Rawat has so blatantly confessed.
Let’s wait for the opportune time. We must keep our role strictly as the human rights defenders of the Kashmiris, while promoting our own credentials in the war on terror – both at home and in the region. In my view, India-Pakistan dialogue will start when we focus on what PM Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf had agreed, as reflected in the joint statement issued on the occasion of that Saarc Summit in Islamabad in 2004. Given the volatile situation in Kashmir, why shouldn’t we try our best to ensure ceasefire on the LoC and offer to pick up the thread from where PM Manmohan Singh and Gen Musharraf had left it.
Instead of throwing each other’s respective ‘core issue’ against one another, both Pakistan and India should take more – and many – confidence-building measures and address tractable issues while thinking of out-of-the-box solutions to intractable disputes. Most importantly, the paradigms of mutually assured destruction, increasing proxy and subliminal warfare and the mindset of enmity will have to be shed by the countries if we want to live in peace and as good neighbours for the larger benefit and progress of our people.
War or peace?
By Dr Akmal Hussain
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.
Rubbing salt on the wounds:
By Aleem Faizee
Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.
Majboot Sarkars Overrated?
Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.