by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Mar 13
At midnight on Saturday, Pakistan's National Assembly completed its five-year term, the first time an elected government has completed its term in that country. If a caretaker government holds elections within 60 days, in accordance with Pakistan's Constitution, it will mark the first democratic transition of power. Outgoing prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf overstated things in his farewell speech when he declared: "Democracy is now so strong, that nobody will stage an ambush against it." But from such tender shoots does democracy flower.
The many Indians who believe that a democratic Pakistan is the key to better relations should share Mr Ashraf's satisfaction; but, in fact, most Indians seem miffed rather than satisfied. That is because Pakistan's outgoing National Assembly, in its last act on Thursday, passed a resolution criticising the hanging of Afzal Guru for his role in a suicide strike on India's Parliament that had sparked a near-war between the two countries. India's Parliament responded the next day with a unanimous resolution condemning "Pakistani interference" and calling upon Pakistan's National Assembly to desist from "support for extremist and terrorist elements". Apoplectic New Delhi insiders say the dialogue process is in deep freeze. So much for democracy as a facilitator of good relations!
Realist watchers of the on-now-off-now India-Pakistan relationship suspect that there will be no more than a three-month interregnum in talks unless Pakistan ratchets up support to cross-border militancy and terrorism. But they may be wrong because a combination of factors suggests contentious days ahead for the Delhi-Srinagar-Islamabad triangle. In the run-up to the American troop drawdown from Afghanistan, the next two years were always going to present a serious challenge to India's diplomatic and security establishment. Any strategist would have foreseen that a positive situation in Kashmir would have freed up New Delhi to shape events in AfPak to its advantage. Sadly, New Delhi will end up fighting fires in Kashmir with one hand while juggling the AfPak playground with the other.
When future historians look back at the last two decades and the ongoing one, they will surely identify New Delhi's most inexcusable strategic folly as its failure to establish a compact with Kashmir (assuming that an even greater blunder does not lie ahead!). During the two and a half years since September 2010 when three years of widespread street violence died down, New Delhi has had the most propitious conditions for devising long-term measures to drain the swamp of resentment in Kashmir. The populace was sick of violence; tourist arrivals, burgeoning year on year, gave them a glimpse of what peace offered; a separatist leadership, worried by the glimpse of new and more radical leaders, was amenable to a settlement; the army, led by a visionary corps commander, was trying to establish a new relationship with Kashmiris; concessions on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in concert with the army presented an easy way to strengthen the nationalist leaders, particularly the chief minister, Omar Abdullah; and a trio of interlocutors produced a report that could have been the basis for a sustained dialogue with a spectrum of Kashmiri opinion. Finally, the Pakistan army, preoccupied with insurgency in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, had little appetite for problems on the India border. As a result, Kashmir also enjoyed an unprecedented lull in militancy.
New Delhi failed to capitalise on these fortuitous circumstances and now several of them have faded away. New Delhi - with a flat refusal to review AFSPA, its inability to establish dialogue, and its insensitive handling of the Afzal Guru hanging - is providing the fuel for resentment to flare. The recent fidayeen attack on a CRPF camp shows that militants retain their capability to strike once popular support rekindles. And with no dialogue initiated with the "moderate separatists", the hardest-liner leaders will command the attention of the street.
Complicating that inaction in Kashmir, New Delhi's relations with Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) are also spiralling downwards after the beheading of an Indian jawan on the Line of Control and the National Assembly's provocative resolution on Thursday. Without a doubt, Pakistan's politicians - all with one beady eye on the forthcoming elections - went too far in passing that resolution. But the public tit for tat now threatens to introduce India into Pakistan's election campaign as everyone's whipping boy. That would generate long-term fallout, leaving Pakistan's new government with a poisoned legacy of having promised to show India its place.
New Delhi must keep in mind that even as trade with Pakistan grows, visas are liberalised and Islamabad insists that "all parties" (a euphemism for the army) are on board the peace process, the Kashmir issue has not faded --- nor ever will --- into insignificance. For Pakistan, Kashmir's symbolism and strategic value - in terms of national and emotional identity, military value or as an upper riparian for waters - will keep bringing it back as a "core issue" whenever circumstances become vitiated between New Delhi and Srinagar.
Highlighting the need for structurally stabilising the Delhi-Srinagar relationship is the ongoing drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, heading for a minimal presence in 2014 that could even be, as it was in Iraq, a zero presence with a full pull-out. While that would depend upon how Hamid Karzai the brinkman negotiates a Status of Forces Agreement with Washington, India must start preparing for an Afghanistan where its interests are guaranteed not by US troops but by self-sustaining structures in an environment in which Pakistan seems set to play a larger role. I am close to certain that the Pakistani establishment, with its domineering, colonial mindset on Afghanistan, will be unable to consolidate what a needlessly insecure New Delhi considers a winning hand. Either way, India must prepare for ripples from a new AfPak environment washing up in Kashmir.