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Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt

COVER STORY

LoCked horns

LoCked horns The Pakistan army has openly undermined the Sharif regime and declared its institutional hostility to India | AFP

Pakistan army pushes Sharif to the sidelines; escalates conflict with India

The telltale signs that the Pakistan army was getting ready to take control of the reins—and quash the Nawaz Sharif government’s tentative attempts at outreach with India—came much earlier than the horrific mutilation of two Indian soldiers at the Line of Control. When the Pakistan military made the shock announcement that former naval officer and Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav would be executed for espionage, both the timing and the message were proof that Pakistan’s deep state had resurfaced to diminish its elected government.

Since then, a string of events appear to be unravelling the slender thread by which the Sharif government is still holding on. The Panama Papers inquiry, in which three of Sharif’s children have been accused of having unaccounted offshore accounts; the opposition furore over a meeting between the Pakistani prime minister and Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal (I first broke the story of how Jindal was used in the past as an informal conduit between Sharif and Narendra Modi, even providing cover for a secret meeting between the two leaders in Nepal in 2014); and the open takedown of the Sharif government on Twitter by an officer of the Pakistan army because of a leaked story to the Dawn newspaper join the dots. And there is now a question mark over whether Sharif will be able to complete his term in 2018. If Sharif had hoped that his new army chief would give him more autonomy, that hope has been crushed. Be it Raheel Sharif or Qamar Bajwa, the Pakistan army has openly undermined the Sharif regime and declared its institutional hostility to India.

Before his government was thrown into tumult, Sharif told people who met him that the Indian and Pakistani national security advisers had re-established direct contact and that after Bajwa took over, the LoC had quietened down. Sharif’s optimism that his new military chief would be a moderate has been rudely belied by the beheadings of Indian soldiers; the ambush took place just 24 hours after a visit by the Pakistan army chief to the LoC. Forget breathing space, now Sharif is fighting for political survival.

Strictly speaking, none of this is India’s problem. But, as New Delhi calibrates diplomatic and military retaliation for the beheadings, it will have to factor in the civil-military meltdown in what is today one of the world’s most volatile regions. The Modi government also has to be mindful of the turmoil in the Kashmir valley; insurgency and street protests have already opened one front within. Now, with the LoC also erupting in tension, the external and the internal will have to be simultaneously managed, putting pressure on an already stretched security grid.

The challenge for Modi will be to manage public expectation while shielding the Indian Army from the noise and scrutiny of a jingoistic media and hashtag populism, and allowing it enough covert space to wordlessly do what it needs to. While that is a tightrope walk, every leader has to walk. Modi finds himself in an especially piquant situation after going public with the surgical strikes last year. The cross LoC action—taken to avenge the terror attack on an Army camp in Uri—was meant to increase the cost of terrorism for Pakistan and distinguish the more muscular nationalism of the BJP from its predecessors. Now people will hold the government to its own declared standards. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, the daughter of slain head constable Prem Sagar has demanded “50 heads in return” to deliver justice for her father’s decapitation. In Punjab’s Tarn Taran town, the image of Naib Subedar Paramjit Singh’s school-going son saluting the tricolour-draped coffin of his father has gone viral. It will reinforce calls for more ‘decisive action’, and the efficacy of the surgical strikes in securing the LoC will inevitably become a point of debate.

The general who led the cross-border strikes, the wise and erudite former Northern Army Commander D.S. Hooda, told me that asking such a question is to miss the point entirely. “Another mutilation, one more grave provocation from Pakistan, and the inevitable question: what did the surgical strikes achieve? My answer is that we crossed an important political and military milestone,” he said. “The government stood up and took clear responsibility for the strike, and we, in Northern Command, grew in confidence about our ability to execute a complex cross-border operation across a heavily guarded LoC. These are huge positives.”

But he pointed out that the military was always meant to be only one element in a multi-layered response to Pakistan. And, for prime-time warriors foisting an over-simplistic set of responses on the military, Hooda argued that the surgical strikes should have been followed by a sincere attempt to stabilise the internal unrest in Kashmir. “The Army was clear that one strike would not kill terrorism from Pakistan,” he said. “A sustained political, diplomatic and military effort was needed to pressurise Pakistan, and, equally important, to address the internal situation in Kashmir, which had started calming down by that time. We cannot divorce events in south Kashmir from violence on the LoC. I think we missed the opportunity.”

This week, the Army warned television channels against going “ballistic” in reporting on retaliations that it said had not yet taken place and in any case could not be war-gamed in television studios. “Public sensitivity and concern are important; equally, everybody must understand that strategic security is too serious an affair to be played like a T20 match,” warned Lt Gen Subrata Saha, who recently retired as the deputy chief of the army and has served as a top commander in the Kashmir valley. “Visualising contingencies and generating realistic options is a continuous process; at this stage, as professionals, we need to avoid any speculation or public discussion,” he told me.

Nor can publicly announced LoC strikes be a classic and fixed template of response. “Surprise is an important principle of war. It’s about ‘appropriate response’, not ‘expected response’,” Saha said.

There are still options for India to pursue: a season of retaliatory artillery fire at the forward posts; closing down trading posts at the border; and deploying coercive and punitive diplomatic measures. “Sentiments are high today, but we should not think of our response options as restricted only to the military,” said Hooda. “The Army will exact its retribution, but a more comprehensive and sustained strategy should be crafted to deal with Pakistan.”

The Modi government has never been risk-averse and has broken with precedent in many ways while crafting its Pakistan policy, both while gambling on friendship and in responding to hostility. Now, more than the approach of shock and awe, it will come under pressure to find some more consistency and stability in how to deal with an extremely unstable Islamabad.

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