The establishment of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ on 19 August was announced through a tweet from the handle of its official spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid. The common wisdom in India is that terrorist threats to India would increase because Afghanistan will be used as a haven, as it happened during the earlier period of the Taliban rule in 1996-2001 with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane in December 1999 being a prime example.
The only problem is that this time around India’s vulnerability has exponentially increased, not so much by the increase in the scale of threat as by India’s domestic political trajectory, which may have set itself up. It would not take much for India’s adversaries to light the fire that exploits modern India’s historically rooted communal fault line.
The setup was symbolised through the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India would observe 14 August as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran described the announcement as a move aimed “to reopen the wounds of yesteryear, to reignite ugly passions, where past horrors are regurgitated so they may be re-enacted with renewed passion”.
The contemporary constellation of forces that animate India’s strategic environment is far more sinister than it has ever been in its 75 years of existence. It is a deadly combination of external and internal forces that can upend the nation’s progress towards its security and developmental goals. It requires to be viewed holistically and the declaration should be a wakeup call, not because the threat will originate from it but because it might mask the big picture and blind us to the connectedness of forces.
Escalation in Kashmir is often referred to as the main threat with the Taliban in power. It is a valid perception that could draw in India’s scarce resources but one that we know can be dealt with. When viewed individually, each might provide relief through the illusion that India’s strategic capacity is sufficient to deal with each resultant issue.
An internal setup led by many ‘horrors’
Historically, the internal forces of communalism have persisted and Pakistan’s attempts to leverage them as a terrorist tool have been successfully thwarted, though it has also spawned a backlash which is embodied in the ideological moorings of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The currency of electoral power is now increasingly derived from a Hindu majoritarian conception. India’s political landscape is progressively paved with the bigotry born of stoking religious divides. It is a time-tested political tool that has served as a useful handmaiden for political power play and continues to haunt the peace, particularly in South and West Asia. The Constitution-makers were only too well aware of it, but it seems that the safeguards provided by them may prove inadequate to stem the tides that religious divides can unleash.
Layered on India’s polarised political ambience are vectors that have surfaced with a vengeance during the onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic. Some of these are: India’s economic setbacks, the major jumps in unemployment riding the crest of India’s youth bulge which can provide the fodder for infusing bigotry, large-scale impoverishment of people particularly at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, governance incapacities, the hollowing out of the independence of constitutional mechanisms that are supposed to be the bulwark against the rampages of partisan interests, abuse of national security laws through the encroachment of human rights and so on.
It is a long list of items that are eating into the vitals of the State. Popular discontentment is in search of a common enemy. Channelising it by invoking historical hatred is a handy tool for a party that relies on its emotional appeal. ‘Partition horrors’ is a useful flag to unite the masses under the nationalist flag. This delineates the contours of the internal setup.
New ‘calculated’ terms of China-Pakistan nexus
Overarching the internal setup is the shadows cast by China’s rise in India’s strategic neighbourhood. India is wedged within the larger China-US power play and it should be clear by now that a powerful India is not in China’s interest. India’s size and potential can play a role to limit China’s efforts to be the Asian hegemon and the foremost global player. An Indian tilt towards the West in the global and regional power balance is what China is trying to delay and prevent. China has, therefore, for long made moves to contain India within the subcontinent and has been using Pakistan as its borrowed sword. There are many commonalities of Interest with Pakistan to keep India weak.
In the past, Pakistan invested in ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’. But now a China-Pakistan nexus may perceive the opportunities presented by India’s domestic political churn and conclude that ‘calculated blows’ provide greater potential to confine India within the subcontinent. All it requires for success is to orchestrate the blows in terms of time, scale and space.
The priority for the China-Pakistan nexus would be the stabilisation of Afghanistan and its possible incorporation as a tributary state that depends on them for both security and economic needs. Once the security situation permits, China could unleash its ability for infrastructure building to leverage the potential of Afghanistan’s geographic location as a bridge between South, Central, and West Asia. Many ifs and buts can bedevil such a project and the strategic dreams of key stakeholders may hit the hard rock of reality. The fact that only embassies of China, Russia, and Pakistan have stayed on in Kabul provides a glimpse of their future roles.
China can be expected to continue to pin down India’s scarce resources by keeping its sword poised on the Northern borders. India’s attempts to overcome its precarious economic condition will require greater global engagement in terms of trade. China can be expected to leverage this requirement to influence India’s posture in the global and regional geopolitical power play. The timing of the blow will be decided by the signs of India regaining its strength and it would be carried out by Pakistan but done in conjunction with China. An orchestrated upsurge in the Northern border tensions can be combined with a terrorist attack by Pakistan.
The nature of the terrorist blow and its scale could be based on the notion that the attack delivered would unleash the pent-up passions of India’s communal fault line and if the target or targets are carefully chosen, the Indians can be expected to do the rest. The target must have religious significance and should be accompanied by significant loss of Hindu lives. Targets in the Indo-Gangetic belt would be the preferred choice due to the deep polarisation of its communal soil.
India is trapped by its domestic politics
India’s military reaction to the blow will now have to factor in the prevailing tensions on the Northern borders and also douse the fires of the raging internal carnage. This will present challenges for a reaction that must be thought through earlier but those challenges are actually emotional sops that can at best assuage the anger and provide some satisfaction of revenge. The greater problem will emerge from the need to regain internal stability and quicken the developmental process.
The nature of the China-Pakistan nexus has been mostly seen in a military frame. While that possibility will exist, its probability due to the Afghanistan situation has decreased for some unknown period. What is now likely are terrorist blows in the hinterland that have happened before. But now the impact of well-aimed blows has the potential to ignite the communal tinder box that is being increasingly primed by bigotry in the name of protecting the gods. The popular imagination is captured by the narrative that highlights the need to redress historical atrocities.
The ‘calculated blows’ merely pulls the emotional chord that has been assiduously cultivated and designed to strengthen power domestically. The protection from such threats does not only lie in improving the inefficient capacities of governance but would primarily rest on changing the course and speed of India’s communal polarisation through political moves. Unfortunately, there seems to be no such realisation. India’s political leadership may still have time to alter its course, but will it? Seems highly unlikely and so would India’s ascent to become a power of consequence.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)