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The Modi effect

September 06, 2015

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT could just be the 50th anniversary, but you can sense it’s probably not. The mood is darkening. Pakistan and India are at it again.

Why, though? It’s fairly obvious that Pakistan isn’t spoiling for a fight. Sure, it may further burnish the boys’ credentials domestically and any soldier worth his salt loves a good ol’ fashioned stare-down.

But there’s too much else going on here for squabbling with India to be a priority.


The two basic Indian goals — turning India into an economic powerhouse and securing India — are intertwined. Doing the first but not the second would leave India that much more vulnerable to non-states.


So, to Modi we must turn. Initially, it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Minus Pakistan was the new formula; he didn’t want to talk to Pakistan at all.

It didn’t make any sense — how does not talking help anything? It seemed like a classic problem: a regionalist catapulted to the national stage thinking he could reinvent the rules.

Or maybe he was still stuck in election mode: state elections were due over in Indian-held Kashmir and defying Pakistan seemed like a neat electoral trick.

But then the LoC and Working Boundary stuff kept happening. And Modi made it clear that it was his decision to keep that fire lit — disproportionate force was added to the regional lexicon.

Troubled, the outside world stepped in. This can’t go on, the Americans and the Europeans said. You’ve got to find a way of calming things down, Modi was told.

So he agreed to talk — but only on terrorism. And that’s when it started to become clear that there is purpose in what he is doing.

Inside Pakistan it’s been interpreted as Modi trying to isolate Pakistan. Casting us as the villain and trying to make the world angry with us.

But to what end? You isolate us, that still doesn’t help you with your basic problem: how to prevent another Mumbai.

The two basic Indian goals — turning India into an economic powerhouse and securing India — are intertwined. Doing the first but not the second would leave India that much more vulnerable to non-states.

But the problem is that the anti-India non-states here aren’t a priority for Pakistan. We’ve got our hands full fighting the anti-Pak lot.

And the world, long worried about Pakistan imploding, is fairly sympathetic to the Pakistani approach. Better we stabilise ourselves first than take on everything simultaneously and risk everything going to hell.

But what works for the world can’t work for India — the more it pulls ahead of us economically, the more vulnerable it would be to the anti-India non-states here.

So Modi had to find a way to get some focus on the anti-India lot here. You can see what he’s doing.

First, an angry, petulant India refuses to talk to Pakistan. That’s not great, the world thinks, but what’s new there. Sigh.

Then, India rattles the cage a bit. There’re small exchanges of fire and any exchanges of words. OK, that’s not good, the world thinks. Maybe we should have a word with India.

So, the world has a word with India. Look, we know you want to be part of the big boys’ club and that means you’ve got to do certain things. Go, talk to Pakistan.

Modi agrees. I’ll talk, but it has to be about terrorism alone, he tells the world. Yeah, OK, just make it happen, the world tells him.

So, Modi tells Pakistan he wants to talk, but makes it clear that he doesn’t really want to. Shut the anti-India terror networks down first, he essentially pre-conditions the talks.

Modi knows that isn’t going to happen. He can probably guess what will happen instead. On cue, the Pakistani beast stirs. We get agitated and jingoistic.

You want a fight, the puppets-on-strings here rage, we’ll give you a fight. Fists are shaken and swords crossed online and on-air.

The world gets more alarmed.

In just a year, Modi’s achieved something subtle but significant: he’s injected urgency in the global view of India-Pak and he’s recast the terms of bilateral re-engagement.

And Pakistan has played into his hands. Maybe Modi guessed Pakistan would insist on making Kashmir the core issue or maybe it’s just our inability to think creatively.

Either way it’s pretty much a non-starter: the world isn’t going to insist India talk about Kashmir. The world will though insist India and Pakistan talk, and soon.

And of the two, of India and Pakistan, the only one making a realistic suggestion is Modi and his talk of focusing on terror.

It is risky though.

The Modi strategy of alarming the world about India-Pak and then getting talks to focus on anti-terror assumes that the world will in fact pressure Pakistan to do something about the anti-India militants here.

But the world looks like it’s still fairly sympathetic to the Pakistani approach of dealing with the anti-Pak lot first. In any case, the Afghan lot are ahead of the anti-India lot in terms of a global priority.

At the end of the day, the world isn’t going to get India’s business done for it. That is something Modi will certainly have thought of. And this is where his strategy becomes risky.

Think of it as iterations — these little cycles of cross-border anger feeding global anxiety that we’ve been seeing since last year.

If they play out just this way, at this level, the world will get used to them and it’ll become the new normal.

Escalation, then, is the next logical step for Modi. Ratchet up tensions even more so that the alarms bell ring ever louder and the world gets alarmed enough to in fact do something about it.

An arsonist in Delhi poking Pakistan in the eye — does anyone need to spell out all that could go wrong?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

cyril.a@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2015

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