Modi’s next move

August 20, 2019

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The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

FOR most in Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move of revoking held Kashmir’s special status in the Indian constitution came as a shock — even if his government’s manifesto categorically stated his intent to do so. Shocking? Hardly.

In fact, the move has laid to rest any pretence that Modi recognises the need to be a centrist prime minister and that his pandering to his right-wing RSS support base is only a way to keep them in good humour. Everything about his government’s demeanour over the past couple of weeks confirms the deep ideological conviction that underpins his actions.

Sadly, the popular rebuttal that India’s democracy is robust enough to keep the minorities from being jettisoned isn’t going to mean much now. Most of all because Modi, perhaps more so than any of the new populist brand of leaders around the world, has perfected the art of tying big business interests with an exclusionary social and political agenda. His recent electoral campaign was a picture-perfect illustration: despite poor economic performance, he neutralised the Congress and others by sucking virtually all big business money into his campaign and combined this with an over-the-top national security discourse that targeted the Indian left, Pakistan, and everyone that stood against the Hindu-right’s vision.

Fast forward a couple of months to his Kashmir move. So aggressive was the manner in which it was executed that even the most sympathetic world capitals and media outlets had to speak up. But as the minorities shuddered, Corporate India watched millions of Indians come out in Modi’s support. If you are a strongman on a mission to redefine the social fabric of your society, the urge would be to do more.

India’s direction leaves Pakistan with a dilemma.

India’s direction leaves Pakistan with a dilemma. First, because the situation will get uglier. From everything I have studied about the new generation of Kashmiri Muslims, they aren’t going to take it lying down. But India is also unlikely to hold back in unleashing its power to prevent any popular uprising. As news and evidence of excesses trickle out, the Pakistani government will feel the heat from within the country to do something. The political opposition is going to be all over the government if there is even a hint of pragmatism in its posturing. Right-wing forces will use the polarisation to make things more toxic. The push for the government would be to cover its bases by banking on jingoism.

India will pounce, distracting attention from the internal Kashmir dynamic to the Pakistani right’s toxicity. The terrorism lingo will be at the fore of Delhi’s rhetoric. FATF, IMF, and others will be asked to take note.

Second, there is a real risk of a major Pakistan-India crisis in the current situation. The LoC is already radioactive. If the Kashmir unrest gets out of control, or if there are attacks, India is going to blame Pakistan. Given how Modi spun Pulwama to convince his support base that his military actions had worked and that he’d go further to harm Pakistan, he will feel the pressure to act. Similar pressure, built up courtesy of his claims of conducting surgical strikes against Pakistan after Uri, led him to launch air strikes during Pulwama. The end result was that the Pulwama crisis escalated beyond what Uri did.

Third, and most important, what we are witnessing isn’t about the Kashmir issue only. Whatever one may say to critique what has happened there, you can’t blame Modi and co for hiding where they want it all to end up. Nor have they done so about where they’ll go next. For instance, a temple will be built on the site of the Babri mosque regardless of the consequences. And much more thereafter.

As this transpires, Pakistan will face an existential question about its position on the Muslims across the border. Is standing up for them and presenting this as a right based on our official interpretation of the two-nation theory going to remain part of the policy ethos? Or are we prepared to consider it India’s matter?

The issue strikes at the heart of the identity question we have been debating in this country for as long as it’s been around. How this is handled in the current context will have direct implications for our already polarised debate on identity, the raison d’être of the state’s security institutions, and for how the Indian Muslims — many of whom are directly impacted by the state of India-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s stance on their plight — will see Pakistan’s role in the treatment New Delhi metes out to them. The issue will have to be handled extremely delicately.

For someone who has long advocated a reorientation of Pakistan’s relationship with India in the positive direction, Modi’s actions have been a shut-up call for me. Depressing times these are — and things are sure to get worse as Modi persists in targeting minorities, and destroying India’s social fabric in the process.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2019