In the air of déjà vu about the series of new flare-ups along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, several puzzling elements come to the fore. True, the reported building of a new observation post on the Indian side might have contributed to the initial bursts of fire. But the continuing intermittent firing leading to a few more deaths is accompanied on the Pakistani side by parallel calls for restraint on the one hand and an assiduous attempt to use the incidents to internationalise the Kashmir issue on the other.
An intriguing aspect of the new LoC turmoil is that India and the world had assumed that the Pakistani authorities, particularly the Army, would have their hands full in coping with domestic sectarian violence, tragically brought home in recent days by the killings of over a hundred people, most of them belonging to the Shia faith. Yet the determination of the Pakistani authorities to beat a dead horse by first seeking United Nations’ intervention or third-party mediation has muddied the waters.
Pakistan is passing through a difficult phase, with almost routine violence heightened by the prospect of elections, the retirement of Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and a change at the top of the Supreme Court to replace activist Chief Justice Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhry. A new element is the return after seven years of self-exile in Canada of the Sufi preacher Muhammad Tahrir-ul Qadri who began with a bang in Lahore by organising a large rally on December 23 seeking a “democratic revolution”. He is now promising a million-man march to Islamabad to seek the resignation of the Asif Ali Zardari government and a caretaker dispensation. Qadri is, indeed, a new wild card in the pack of Pakistani politics.
The Army has taken a back seat in the nearly five years of the present civilian administration but its veto powers on relations with India, Afghanistan and on the country’s nuclear policy are well known. Indeed, the Army’s salience has increased with the projected American departure from Afghanistan and Washington’s urgent need for Pakistani good offices in making the exit as face-saving as possible. Islamabad believes that it can extract concessions from the US for its services in relation to both Kabul and India.
India has thus far approached the new disturbances along the LoC by balancing the outrage over Indian soldiers’ deaths, in particular the reported mutilation of two soldiers, with consistent calls for restraint while keeping a wary eye on further clues on the Pakistan Army’s intentions. New Delhi’s requests for a meeting of military officials of the two sides, a tested mechanism for sorting out misunderstandings, have finally been accepted after an initial cold response from Pakistan.
For the present, it would seem, Pakistan is content to stall Indian moves while seeking to extract the maximum mileage it can by launching a diplomatic offensive around the world. Its intention is to de-freeze an issue that has tested the patience of the major powers over the preceding decades. Significantly, the initial US response has been in favour of India and Pakistan sorting out the issue on a bilateral basis. But Pakistan is not giving up its gameplan in a hurry and has suspended trade and movement of people across the LoC. Remains to be seen how long this is for.
India has thus far studiously avoided taking any steps that would signify a rethinking of the new liberalised visa regime, the culmination of a long process after the Mumbai carnage. Trade between the two countries has increased significantly although the promised implementation of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status by Pakistan — in fact, non-discriminatory normal trade ties — keeps getting postponed. One explanation offered is that the Urdu translation of MFN renders it as meaning a great friendship status.
Given this scenario, a few conclusions can be drawn. The first half of this year will be an era of great uncertainties in Pakistan, with elections expected in April or May. Second, the changeover in the Army leadership will see a new set of senior officers in control. From India’s and the world’s point of view, the new Army Chief’s ambitions will play a role in how far Pakistan reverts to an even more forceful military thrust in running the country in all but name. Gen. Kayani has been happy in having his way on issues he considers important under the veil of civilian rule.
The immediate pointers to watch will be the length of time the Pakistan Army keeps the pot simmering along the LoC. New Delhi will need to display both patience and firmness in fielding Pakistani fire. New Delhi must recognise that Islamabad’s attitude towards it will depend upon domestic Pakistani compulsions to a far greater degree than they have in the recent past. If the Pakistan Army considers Afghanistan as a ripe fruit waiting to fall into its lap, it is in for a few surprises although circumstances favour Pakistan in extracting benefits from the American exit. Afghans are a fiercely independent people and although the Afghan Taliban want all American troops out after 2014, they will not exchange American occupation for Pakistani overlordship.
In a sense, India has no option but to seek friendship with Pakistan in the long run. Despite the Pakistani connection to the gruesome Mumbai carnage, New Delhi had to try to rebuild a measure of trust and normality with its neighbour because the logic of its proximity and the burden of history in the shape of the bloody Partition leave it with few other sane policy alternatives.
Indians obviously need to factor in the instability that will mark Pakistan’s journey to the future in 2013 in framing their tactic and policy. Pakistan and China represent India’s most fraught relationships. It is important, therefore, for the ruling coalition and Opposition parties to keep a cool head to cope with the present turbulent phase. This is not the time to score political points. The next general election in India is still some time away.