Pulwama Aftermath: What’s Best for Modi May Not Be What’s Best for India

The attack highlights Modi’s policy failure in Kashmir and Pakistan’s strategy to move geopolitics in its favour during the Trump presidency.

Narendra Modi was in Srinagar recently and was seen waving at someone while cruising on the Dal Lake. This generated some mirth on social media as people wondered who he was waving to when the civilian population was shut indoors owing to strict security measures.

It may well be that Modi was greeting security force personnel who tirelessly man the perimeter of the lake, and indeed most of Kashmir, whether he is visiting or not.

As Modi comes to terms with the suicide bombing in Pulwama district that has killed over 40 CRPF personnel, he must ask himself whether he has done all he can to protect those he professes to serve. 

The truth is that he has not had a plan to address the conflict in Kashmir – or if he has a policy it is the wrong one, judging from widespread civilian suffering and the deadly price the security forces have paid over the past three years.

Also read: US Backs India’s Right to Self-Defence, Drops Customary Call for Restraint

Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval have pursued an approach that is based on the view that Kashmir is a purely military problem that can be solved through relentless security crackdowns.

Since 2016, there has a huge surge in repressive tactics – scores of young civilians have died in shootings and houses have been destroyed in operations that have set off waves of rage and despair, a constant background spectacle in India’s politics. The tactics have barely elicited reactions from policy analysts in Delhi, who are otherwise quick to issue tweetstorms when terrorist attacks occur.

The logic of counterinsurgency

Modi and the BJP need only to turn to developments in Afghanistan to realise how futile a purely militarist approach to insurgency is.

In 17 years of war, the US has spent $718 billion on operations, lost 2,372 military personnel with 20,000 service members injured – not to forget the 45,000 Afghan security forces who have been killed. Despite all the firepower the US is able to marshal, Washington is now having to conduct talks with the Taliban, while Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union that occupied Afghanistan not long ago, also plays host to peace negotiations involving associates of the mujahideen that fought it in the 1980s.

The logic of counterinsurgency (COIN) is simple, whether it be a relatively large country like Afghanistan or a small patch like Gaza: one, that security operations cannot ultimately succeed unless states command the loyalty of a section of the population and, two, that counterterrorism efforts at best create the conditions for dialogue and are not a substitute for it.

Modi and Doval have flouted these accepted COIN assumptions and have instead inflamed public sentiment in the Valley – including through the BJP’s efforts to withhold flood relief in 2014, undermining the PDP-BJP government on a regular basis, nurturing  anti-Kashmiri narratives in the public sphere and deploying harsh security measures.

The result is a spike in militant recruitment and violence – and a situation where the security forces now need to entirely avoid civilian populations when they travel, as reported in this story about how the Pulwama attack happened. These are not the conditions under which an insurgency can be overcome – in fact, they condemn security forces to a never-ending war, which is politically quite irresponsible given that CRPF and army personnel would like nothing more than for the conflict to end and for them to return to their families.

Also read: Militant Recruitment Data in 2018 Is Telling of the Centre’s Failed Strategies in J&K

The gross mistake that the Modi government has made is to abandon the Congress party’s playbook during 2004-14, which was to strive for improved India-Pakistan ties, bring down levels of militant violence, allow a semblance of normalcy and offer the state government some latitude to provide a glimpse of local ownership and control.

The Congress was, to be sure, wrong-headed, cynical and repressive at several stages but the UPA government at least succeeded in generating a narrative about political solutions. The Modi government, instead, seeks to move Kashmir into a space where there is no scope for politics, and effectively reduce the Valley to being only a theatre of violence that polarises the rest of India.

The tragedy is that civilians and security forces are both trapped in a morality play staged on TV and social media with no end in sight and the government having no plan for mitigating the misery of both.

Also read: Opposition Parties Stand With Centre, Forces in Aftermath of Pulwama Attack

What next?

The Pulwama attack will set off outcomes that might benefit Modi politically but be detrimental to India’s interests at large.

There may, in all likelihood, be a spike in Modi’s popularity should he choose to exercise a military option like surgical strikes.

It is worth stating that the Jaish-e-Mohammed could not have conducted the Pulwama attack without Rawalpindi’s support and imprimatur – and this should prompt analysts to consider what the Pakistani deep state’s calculus is by staging an attack that bolsters Modi politically so close to the elections.

Security agencies inspect the site of the Pulwama suicide bomb attack. Credit: PTI

Be that as it may, there’s no guarantee that the situation will play out as Modi and India hope.

Consider the diplomatic and military possibilities after Pulwama. India wants to internationally isolate Pakistan. Expressions of condemnation and support from other nations have come through but they have more symbolic meaning than substantive value. In themselves, they will not translate to much because Islamabad is bound to push back diplomatically perhaps militarily, in the hope of getting the international community to involve itself in conflict management.

The prospect of a limited war is being discussed glibly. That really holds little terror for Pakistan as it  reckons India would itself be wary of any escalation that would follow. Pakistan has nuclear weapons but the Indian side believes it can call Islamabad’s bluff. However, the Pakistani side  has reasons to believe it can use a crisis to shift the geopolitical balance in its favour. 

Watch | National Security Conversations: Understanding And Responding to Pulwama

How this happens has everything to do with the context. In the post 9/11 phase, India had successfully persuaded the international community to exert pressure on Pakistan to end “cross-border terrorism”.

The US national security bureaucracy and European nations were attentive to Delhi’s concerns, owing to the size of India’s market and the potential of an India-Pakistan war distracting from their own operations in Afghanistan. That context has now changed. Donald Trump is a distracted, incompetent figure who sees international relations in transactional terms; he does not listen to his own national security professionals as the resignation of James Mattis shows, and he’s unlikely to intervene in an India-Pakistan crisis with the fervour that Bill Clinton did in Kargil.

Also read: Modi is Leaving India Unprepared for a World Made by Trump and China

In any case, the US is trying to get out of Afghanistan and now needs Pakistan as much as it always had. Furthermore, China has material interests in Pakistan owing to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

If an India-Pakistan war ensues, it will be in Islamabad’s interest to escalate the conflict in ways that alarm Beijing – and it will then be China’s turn to intervene, rather than the US. Islamabad would effectively be using this crisis and the window of the Trump presidency to add new dimensions to the Kashmir conflict and potentially create a precedent for China’s involvement in the future as well.

India thus has a lot to lose with how the Modi government proceeds both on the Pakistan front and with its Kashmir policy. Right now, mobs are threatening and attacking Kashmiri students and professionals in Indian cities. This will not only tear India’s social fabric further apart but also reinforce resistance in the Valley.

The BJP may yet win power after Pulwama, but its policies are laying waste to the landscape it wants to rule.

Sushil Aaron is a commentator on India’s politics and international affairs. He tweets @SushilAaron.