Sunday, August 4, 2013

Of three crucial elections and a withdrawal

The region is headed for either a phase of unprecedented violence and conflict, or the crises that we see unfolding could become an opportunity.

THE next 16 months will be critical for South Asia. We could see the region descend into chaos, or it could prove to be a turning point in the history of the region. Much will depend on the India-Pakistan dialogue and whether Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif are able to arrive at a modus vivendi when they meet in September on the sidelines of the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Three critical elections and one withdrawal are slated to happen next year and they will all impact on the region decisively. The most inclusive and least controversial will be the Indian general election, sometime in the spring of 2014. It is all but certain that Narendra Modi will be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and the election potentially the most polarising in India’s history. While there is a robust debate on the Gujarat model of development (particularly invigorated by the recent exchanges between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati), few have any idea on what would be Modi’s foreign policy were he to become the Prime Minister.

Will the foreign policy be driven by primarily his economic agenda of accelerating growth, or will it propelled by a fierce nationalistic weltanschauung? Or will it be a combination thereof? How would a Modi government relate to India’s smaller neighbours, and what view would it take of Pakistan and Afghanistan? Clearly, Modi has made some pronouncements, and even written a letter to Dr Manmohan Singh on the Sir Creek dispute, where he said: “I would earnestly request you to stop this dialogue with Pakistan at once and Sir Creek should not be handed over to Pakistan.”

But there is a difference between being a Chief Minister of a state and being the Prime Minister of the Republic of India. Even the most hardline leaders have had their policies tempered after assuming power, and I have even heard many Pakistanis suggest that only a BJP Prime Minister, whose nationalism would not be in doubt, would be able to make peace with their country. Recall too Modi’s first public speech, after being elevated as the BJP’s election campaign committee chief at Madhopur in Punjab — on Shyama Prasad Mukherjee's death anniversary — where he invoked Atal Behari Vajpayee and talked about the need to heal Kashmir’s wounds.

The uncertainties of the region are compounded by the rather dark future of Afghanistan, which could witness a civil war even before the next election slated for April 2014 and before the withdrawal of the forces by NATO and other partner countries later next year. Afghanistan is being seen in zero-sum terms by India and Pakistan, and this could become a dangerous theatre for their rivalry. Even now the signs are ominous. The US is trying to cobble a deal with the Taliban with the assistance of Pakistan, while President Hamid Karzai views this, not without reason, as a plot to undermine him and sees India as probably his only remaining ally. And remember that Karzai, who is often vilified in the Pakistani and American media, is one of the shrewdest politicians that I have met, and may spring a surprise by hastening the withdrawal of the NATO forces before the elections and by implementing his own succession plan.

And finally we have the elections in Jammu and Kashmir towards the end of 2014. There is no doubt in my mind that these elections too will be a turning point. The bleak scenario is of increased militancy aided by an unstable Pakistan, a chaotic Afghanistan and increasingly alienated young people of the state, in which the elections are reduced to a farce with no one outside the mainstream participating and with a very low voter turnout. The state could then witness another decade or so of grave violent conflict. Or the elections could become the most inclusive in the history of the state and lead to enduring peace and stability.

In sum, the region is headed for either a phase of unprecedented violence and conflict or the crises that we see unfolding could become an opportunity. If the latter is what we want to see, it is critical for New Delhi and Islamabad to immediately resume the official dialogue, and strengthen the back channel through the two designated interlocutors: Shayryar Khan and Satish Lambha. This dialogue must include sustained discussions on the future of Afghanistan. In addition, as the Chaophraya Track II dialogue recommended recently, it is important to revive the ministerial level India-Pakistan joint commission created in 1983; and there is urgent need for a dialogue between the two Ministries of Defence with adequate military representation.

Simultaneously, there is critical need to address the continuing trust deficit between the people of Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi. Not through tactical diversionary measures, but through substantive peace-building measures. Indeed, if and when they meet in New York, the two Prime Ministers must recognise that any further drift in bilateral relations will be dangerous for the future of the entire region.

(Source: The Tribune)

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