India’s home minister went for a Saarc conference to Islamabad, where the Pakistanis received him in “great style”, with demonstrations led by the likes of Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa boss Hafiz Saeed, who is also the reigning high priest of the proscribed terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. This is perhaps the first time that Pakistan has permitted and patronised anti-India rallies in the heart of its capital during a multilateral conference. Complementing the Pakistani belligerence has been the stream of rhetoric emanating from the Indian side, essentially underscoring the fact that there would be no bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan during the Islamabad visit. It then begs two obvious questions. First, why did the home minister travel to Islamabad? How did things come to such a pass so quickly once again in the undulant India-Pakistan tango?
South Asia is the world’s least integrated region, hostage to the zero-sum game between India and Pakistan. This non-relationship between the two also has a nuclear dimension for the past 18 years. If India and Pakistan are again talking at each other rather than trying to talk to each other, reiterating clichéd positions, then the Saarc ministerial meeting itself is a futile exercise. The only plausible rationale for Rajnath Singh’s visit to Islamabad can then possibly be the misplaced machismo that “I can and have come to rant at you in your country”. This doesn’t at all augur well for the region.
In the recent, chequered history of the two nations, there have been innumerable flashpoints but has the situation been ever so bad in the absence of the high-voltage trigger that is intrinsic to such virtual conflagrations? No. If one looks back over the past 16 years since the Kargil conflict, there were three high-profile sparks that could have unleashed a disastrous chain of events between the two countries. The hijacking of IC-814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and Operation Parakram launched subsequently by the Indian Army and, of course, the 26/11-terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008. All these outrages bore the indelible stamp of Pakistan’s deep state and the ISI’s nexus with non-state actors.
But despite the grave and unwarranted provocation that were seen during the terms of Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, New Delhi avoided any escalation, much to the frustration of India’s inflamed public opinion, as there was an acute realisation in the government that there are no quantifiable benchmarks or predictable scenarios to an acceleration of hostilities. At which red line would the nuclear dimension come into play, and in an evolving confrontation were all red lines and thresholds not subject to continuous reappraisal?
The essence of any counter-insurgency doctrine is to win over the hearts and minds of the people; for an insurgency can be isolated and brought to its knees only if it loses the oxygen of local partisan support. In Kashmir, we seem to have elevated alienation to a veritable fine art. To return, meanwhile, to the India-Pakistan conundrum, why are Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif pressing the hate buttons so cynically? Is it because of electoral calculations? In Pakistan’s case, it doesn’t square up, as in its last national elections India was a non-issue. Also, to a large extent, Pakistan was not on the agenda during the 2014 general election in India.
If the idea is to once again tap into Partition’s faultlines to dredge up and tilt at windmills of the two-nation theory, then both establishments are playing with fire. If Mr Modi wants to subliminally play the “unreliability card” vis-à-vis India’s Muslims, it’s an extremely myopic and dangerous game of smoke and mirrors, one with grave implications. Mr Modi played this number in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 Gujarat polls with a different cast of characters each time, but with the same divisive message. But it’s a very dangerous play to risk as Prime Minister. The Trumpification of politics in the South Asian context is fraught with large pits that can lead to huge falls.
For Mr Sharif to try ride this tiger is akin to cruising for a bruising. There’s a huge constituency of fanatics in Pakistan, far more rabid and venomously anti-India than the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) could ever be. By starting down that track, that country’s mainstream political parties would squarely play into the hands of the fringe; and unlike in India there are no significant minorities to beat up in Pakistan and generate xenophobia for electoral purposes. The somersaults, U-turns and flip-flops that characterised New Delhi’s approach towards Pakistan in the past 26 months could earlier have been put down to the new bunch in South Block being out of depth, that allowed the Pakistani deep state to run circles around them.
However, with each passing day, the desire to push the envelope further and ratchet up tensions in a calibrated way points to a more sinister and ominous gameplan aimed at playing the Pakistani card for domestic purposes. If Mr Modi believes he can sow this wind, he should be under no illusion that the resulting whirlwind would have catastrophic long-term consequences — both domestically and internationally. This is also true for Nawaz Sharif.