Pakistan was desperate for a counter-narrative to blunt the Indian moral ascendancy and to play the victim.
The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode continues to rile India-Pakistan relations since his sudden sentencing to death for espionage and terrorism last week. Spies and saboteurs have been apprehended by both sides in the past, but the explosive Indian reaction is new. Sarabjit Singh, whose case was the first post-television and social media driven event that his tenacious sister orchestrated, had also faced similar charges. Pakistan settled it typically by keeping him on death row for decades and then organising a “fight” among prisoners to cause his death. India protested, but took it in its stride, implying that nothing better could be expected from Pakistan. It was moral censure, and not chest-thumping.
Pakistan seems bent this time on extracting more fear and pathos, employing the military court stratagem to shorten appellate processes. There is also the socio-political implication of putting the noose around the neck of a former armed forces officer rather than some smuggler-cum-spy. India too has bitten the bait with alacrity. Spy games thus just got more serious as public opinion and the Opposition parties forced the Indian government to stand by its rhetoric.
Why is Pakistan precipitating the issue now? First, Pakistan has been seeking a “smoking gun” ever since India actually caught Ajmal Kasab alive while committing along with his co-conspirators the horrendous 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. Audio intercepts and the subsequent confessions by David Coleman Headley led the trail directly to the heart of the terror syndicate sponsored by the Pakistani state. Decades of Pakistani perfidy with the United States only hardened American distrust, resulting in the unilateral US action to eliminate Osama bin Laden and later Mullah Mansour, head of the Taliban. Pakistan was desperate for a counter-narrative to blunt the Indian moral ascendancy and to play the victim.
Second, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Christmas Day stopover in Lahore in December 2015, and the subsequent Pathankot airbase attack within a week in January 2016, India had stiffened its stance. The red lines for downgrading contact were at any Army camp’s fence. Traditionally, fidayeen attacks on Army installations were left to the forces to deter by devising active defence methods, without affecting bilateral relations. Mr Modi, however, further raised the stakes by espousing the cause of Balochis and the residents of Gilgit and Baltistan from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 last year.
Third, for the umpteenth time, Pakistan may have misread the unsettled conditions in the Kashmir Valley as being out of India’s control. Also, the recent comment by US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley suggesting US mediation to resolve India-Pakistan disputes may also have eoldened Pakistan. US President Donald Trump’s reversal of the Obama doctrine to unshackle Iran to fight against ISIS in Syria-Iraq, with a concomitant downgrading of traditional US alliances in the Sunni world, would also have boosted Pakistani self-importance after its initial fears of Trumpian uncertainty. Pakistan was thus just being Pakistan again!
This was despite subtle signals from Pakistan that new Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa was having a rethink on India. Combined with the BJP’s massive win in the Uttar Pradesh election, it was logical to expect that the temperature with Pakistan may be lowered. There were whispers that the NSAs of both nations had spoken over the telephone. But individuals, including Army chiefs and Prime Ministers in Pakistan, can be overcome by tides of popular misperception.
India says Kulbhushan Jadhav had been entrapped and abducted from Iran, where he was running a business from Chabahar. Pakistan asserts he was arrested in Balochistan in flagrante or in the act. The Indian government is reticent about when and why Kulbhushan Yadav became Hussein Mubarak Patel, a Muslim name in which he held an Indian passport. There have been press reports of his past approaches to Indian intelligence with offers to help. But Pakistan disallowing access to him only confirms the doubts that the Pakistani story about his arrest may be a concoction. The BJP government is in a self-created trap unless Pakistani panic is due to their missing former ISI officers having been entrapped by India in Nepal. In that event, a quiet exchange may be possible, but either way it has taken “spy games” to a new level dictated by the security agencies. This, the government’s defenders will say, is the right way to counter Pakistan’s asymmetrical warfare that has led India each time talks were resumed down the same road of terror blackmail.
The flip side of the above argument is that the disruption that the Trump administration has caused may not yet have played out. The Xi Jinping-Trump summit has only provided an extended window for addressing mutual concerns. Mr Trump’s relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin have got mired in domestic US politics. Europe is dangling by a string which can snap and end their union. Sino-Indian relations have been heated up with India upping the ante over the Dalai Lama and Tawang, treating both as matters internal to the Indian polity and off limits for Chinese interference. In such uncertain times, logic dictates we don’t cause Sino-Pak convergence to deepen into an open military alliance.
As Narendra Modi adopts a more “forward policy” on China, for the second time after Jawaharlal Nehru’s ill-prepared attempt in the early 1960s, the timing of the policy, though long overdue, appears risky. Jingoism has been a useful adjunct to the creation of the Modi mystique. The rise of “yogis” as rulers, as in UP, and socio-religious evangelism degrading often into vigilantism are all signs of a shrinking space for debate and consensus — the handmaidens of democracy. Nehru erred on China as he was in an echo chamber of a small elite feeding his myth of Chinese benevolence and Asian solidarity. The danger today is that while jingoism fuels Mr Modi’s domestic political success, it can also walk him into a regional morass, set by China and led by deluded elites in India’s neighbourhood