Friday, 5 April 2019


The Congress has bitten the bullet by attempting a head start on its rival, the ruling party, in the release of its manifesto. It hopes to seize the agenda-setting initiative from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which it had lost seemingly decisively in the wake of the Balakot aerial strikes. Initial optics indicates that it has made a dent with its championing of dole to the destitute under the 'Nyay' scheme.

Of greater consequence to readers of this paper is the vision for Kashmir that it lays out. Since this has apparently been done with the input of a former commanding general in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), DS Hooda, it makes for enhanced credibility. Hooda had earlier taken on the request of the Congress to turn in a security doctrine for use by the party as it headed into elections. The grand old party, often criticized for its showing on the security front particularly in comparison with the BJP that projects a strong-on-defence image, has apparently benefited from his insight, using it to pepper its manifesto.

Hooda is regarded as a hero after the surgical strikes. Besides a wealth of military experience in counter insurgency, he has shown himself to be empathetic to the people of the state. His major legacy is in arraigning of the perpetrators of the Machhil incident and in making the trigger-happy security detail at a road check-point to face consequences for killing two Kashmiri youth out on a joy ride.

In the event, the armed forces tribunal let off the Machhil perpetrators on trivial grounds, even as his taking the responsibility for the check point killings was criticized as a political stunt by no less than the former director of the army's think tank on land warfare studies. (The former director went on to join a right wing think tank that has connections with Ajit Doval's family, Doval being the current day national security adviser.)

The Doval imprint on Kashmir has been apparent over the past three years, ever more so over the past three months. His latest intervention has been in the bans on the Jamaat and the J&K Liberation Front. Since Doval is an old warrior in the intelligence game with Pakistan over the past four decades, the bans are akin to vendetta with the animus dating to the early nineties when the two entities were reckonable antagonists for Indian intelligence agencies in Kashmir. The charge-sheet against the JKLF includes 'genocide', a clear give away of the accumulated bile in decision makers that can only cloud strategic thinking.

In effect, the advantage is to the voter. She has two Kashmir policy prescriptions to choose from, respectively the Hooda and Doval prescriptions. Since the voter's would be a forward-looking exercise, the prospects of the two are examined here.

To begin with: the Doval prescription. The pillars of this into the fifth year of implementation are by now amply clear. 'No talks' with either Pakistan or with Kashmiris is its hallmark. Since talks figure universally as a check box to be ticked in policy repertoire in counter insurgency and inter-state relations, internally, there is a perfunctory representative of the Union who makes the rounds, while externally, every now and again India takes one step forward for talks with Pakistan followed soon thereafter with two steps back.

In its fifth year, it is easy to examine the outcome. It can plausibly be argued that the conditions created by the Doval prescription led to the Pulwama car-bomb attack. Recall, prior to the mid February car-bomb strike with which Pulwama has now eternally come to be associated with, it was known for the frequent stand-off between stone-pelters and security forces. In one incident in December last year, seven civilians were killed on the sidelines of a military operation. Also, along with the 250 militants killed last year, 28 militants were killed before the car-bomb attack. With no lee-way on offer in terms of outreach by the representative of the Union government, escalation was only waiting to happen. In short, the government's policy needs being blamed for the escalation, besides its intelligence lapse and tactical imprudence, such as basic convoy drills, that led to the success of the car-bomb attack directly.

As for the deterrence value of the surgical strikes post Uri, the car-bomb attack has shown it up as vacuous. Pakistani restraint in its proxy war is apparent in its overlooking some 400 killed in the past three years in Kashmir without infusing fresh blood and material in to the proxy war. The Balakot aerial strike and the continuing of a 'no talks' policy can only incentivize it to reverse gear over the coming summer. In case the government is right on numbers killed ('a very large number' according to its foreign secretary) and the ruling party chair is right on his figure of 300 killed, then it can easily predicted to be a pretty hot summer indeed. As to effects on the assembly elections, these will surely be postponed - in case Doval remains in the chair after elections - allowing for Operation All Out to go all out.

If the BJP is re-elected on its pitch of doing away with Article 35A to begin with and it proceeds to queer the pitch on Article 370, it has been forewarned by the two mainstream parties in the Valley that there would be consequences. While the Modi-Doval combine might rightly believe that the 'Modiji ki sena' (in the inimitable words of a candidate successor to Modi, Ajay Singh Bisht, aka. Yogi Adityanath) would deliver, it would be hard pressed. However, there is no call for its professionalism to remain on test by aggravation of the conditions it operates in. Not politically addressing the problem amounts to political abdication of its role by the central government. But to further muddy waters politically would amount to a criminally liable dereliction of responsibility, once the nuclear balloon goes up.

The Balakot-Naushera aerial exchange indicates that the Modi-Doval prescription sets up the region for a perfect storm. While Doval apologists in the strategic community have it that India has called Pakistan's nuclear bluff, the view from the other side could well be that Pakistan has called India's conventional bluff. The starving of the defence budget, even as preening was at a peak by the government, made for a conventional bluff easy to puncture. At the nuclear level, a one-time military adviser in the national security system, Prakash Menon, observed a touching belief in both sides in respective nuclear bluffs. Both sides are liable to go into their next crisis determined to call the nuclear bluff of the other side: India wanting to call Pakistan's first use nuclear bluff and Pakistan out to show up India's massive nuclear retaliation as bluff.

It is easy to see that the Hooda prescription has the antidote to the regional predicament on account of Kashmir. The military's role is considerably eased by the political content in the Congress manifesto. The Congress manifesto calls for civil society interlocutors to dialogue with the Kashmiris, even as it dilutes the militarization in Kashmir and reviews the working of the armed forces special powers legislation. Clearly, Modi's reaction that it is a Pakistani conspiracy is perhaps the best indicator that it is a contrary prescription with potential to mitigate, if not reverse, the strategic impasse in Kashmir. The criticism that it could lead to 'balkanization', voiced by Modi's chief spin doctor, Arun Jaitley, is easily refuted since it has captured the grievances of Kashmiris, thereby addressing separatism. Enticing Kashmiris by presenting an inclusive and liberal version of democracy and respecting the foundational constitutional articles as regards the merger, it creates the political framework for Kashmiris to step into the mainstream.

Admittedly, if the Congress does come to power and even if it intends to follow through with its 'Congress will deliver' slogan, it would likely be in a weak coalition and one buffeted by a strong opposition coalition led by the BJP. Therefore, the Congress would require staying the course, unlike in its previous tenure at the helm, United Progressive Alliance II years, when it was fearful of being outflanked by the BJP. The BJP having been exposed in the Modi years and the Doval prescription having been found wanting, the Congress would need to step up. It would be well advised to allow Hooda himself, as the new national security adviser, to implement the policy he wrote up.