At a Crossroads

People in South Asia are living through times as consequential as any in history. With jingoism blowing across the length and breadth of the sub-continent, talking peace makes little sense these days. But everybody is talking about peace while urging India and Pakistan to exercise utmost restraint. Major world powers—the US, the UK, China, Russia and the European Union—all look worried about escalation of tensions in the sub-continent after the Pakistan military shot down one Indian fighter jet over Pakistani space and arrested one Indian pilot. Men and women, young and old are on fire on both sides of the fence. Instead of deescalating tensions the ruling establishment is igniting passion and revenge rhetoric as if they are already in a war. In truth low intensity conflict that goes on round the year all along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is anything but war. As its intensity has increased in recent weeks after the recent suicide bombing in J&K the saffronites headed by Modi are all out to politicise the deaths because parliamentary poll is round the corner. So Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley suggested, somewhat innocuously that India was capable of performing an Abbotabad type operation in which US Navy Seals killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011 with an oblique reference to India's 'second surgical' action against the main terror camp of Jais-e-Mohammed in Balakot. Maybe Jaitley is defusing tensions in his own way! What matters most to the Jaitleys is how to whip up war hysteria and tensions will follow. On February 27 one Mi-17v5 helicopter of Indian Air Force got crashed near Badgam in J&K, it was on routine duty along LoC and six air warriors and a civilian perished—deaths along LoC. India seems to be covering up the human costs of recent flare up. Close on the heels of Arun Jaitley's remarks Imran Khan warned India against miscalculation and it was enough to fuel war cry in Pakistan. But Mr Khan was candid enough to admit the hard reality that he won't be in charge in the event of a full scale war, declared or undeclared. In Pakistan the military is the last word even when Mr Khan's country is not at war with India. But his observation that no one knows where the wars lead to cannot be dismissed lightly. Then he went a bit philosophical by explaining the futility of war in relation to World War-I and World War-II and 'War on Terror' as well. His idea of dialogue at this stage sounds hollow, particularly in a war like situation.

Surprisingly, China for the first time joined India in condemning terror in all forms. It came at the 16th meeting of RIC (Russia, India and China) foreign ministers at the Chinese city of Zhejiang. De-escalation of tensions at this stage is the only option to prepare ground for talks, diplomatic or otherwise. But politicians look reluctant to defuse tensions.

Meanwhile, twenty-one opposition parties criticised Modi government's attempts to utilise troops' sacrifices to further Bharatiya Janata Party's political ends. Not quite unexpectedly Modi's party—Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismissed the allegation as baseless. But the whole world knows this blaming game on 'war game' is the usual political practice in India, particularly in an election year.

For one thing even a limited war will have far reaching consequences on the economy of both countries. People living on both sides of LoC and International Border bear the maximum brunt throughout the year for the continuing conflict and they will be first devastated when a full-fledged war breaks out. Two major wars in the past didn't help India and Pakistan resolve their long pending issues. It's in the best interest of the people of the sub-continent and South Asian nations to shun warmorgering but it is more like a plague.

The very possibility of war has already fuelled inflationary pressures, hiking prices of essential commodities. And ultimately market operators will laugh the last laugh.

No doubt Pakistan showed good gesture by releasing captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, possibly under international pressure. But earlier they tried to utilise captured pilot as a bargaining chip to clinch a deal. Whatever the reason that the tensions may subside at least for the time being is a fact of life. That opposition has been cornered by Modi's aggressive image is also a fact. Modi's 2014 electoral promises proved a big hoax, his development model didn't work, notorious demonetisation scheme and dubious Aadhaar programme isolated him completely from common masses, the Ayodhya and hindutva plank failed to communally polarise voters at the desired level. There was nothing to revive Modi magic. Only option left was Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether war hysteria can help Modi win the 2019 parliamentary poll. Modi is very much at a crossroads as countdown has begun.

Vol. 51, No.36, Mar 10 - 16, 2019