Doklam Denouement: Change in Rules of Engagement

After 70 days of apparently irreconcilable positions, China and India ultimately opted for ‘expeditious disengagement’ at Doklam early this week. Both the countries finally displayed maturity and let diplomacy trump posturing. The jury is still out on what precipitated the seemingly sudden resolution. The upcoming BRICS summit is the top suspect, of course. The logic is that BRICS is fast becoming one of the key instruments of China’s power projection and that had India chosen to give it a go by, a la the Belt and Road conference earlier this year, BRICS as a platform would have been severely undermined, embarrassing the hosts and pushing the ongoing conflict between the two countries to a dangerous tipping point. That’s a valid argument.

However, my own sense is that while the timing of the ‘disengagement’ is quite visibly influenced by the compulsion of holding a successful BRICS summit, the resolution of the stalemate has more to do with the increasingly untenable position of China on the issue.  Beijing never expected that construction of a road in Doklam plateau would elicit such a strong reaction from India. It was unprecedented for India to cross the border to enter the territory of another country – Bhutan’s, from Indian perspective – and physically stop Chinese army from constructing the road in what China believes is its territory.  The extraordinarily strident rhetoric arising from China, both in the foreign office and the state owned media is evidence that China was exceptionally riled by this move from an ‘upstart’ India.  Therefore, I would argue that China did not ‘choose’ Doklam for a face- off.  What supports this hypothesis is the fact that at Doklam India commands the heights and is, therefore, in tactically superior position. Had China pressed the issue militarily it would have come out the poorer.  China did try to intimidate India for more than two months but in vain.  Its options were shrinking with time as India was not responding to the verbal threats at all and China was in no position to force a military solution at Doklam.  The longer the fracas continued, the more it would erode China’s position as the pre-eminent power in Asia. Then, there was a trend emerging, disturbing from the Chinese perspective, of important countries gradually coming out in support of India, starting with Japan.

The majority view in the foreign media is that India has come out better off in this relatively minor clash between the two civilizational states.  It is not just about the outcome i.e. protecting territorial interests of an ally, protecting own security interests and calling China’s bluff.  It’s equally about the process.  From day one, while China had been doling out a shrill rhetoric, which in hindsight proved to be empty threats, India refused to take the bait. China was increasingly coming across as petulant and the scuffle at Pangong lake which found the forces of the two nuclear powers indulging in kicking, punching and throwing of stones was symptomatic of this petulance and frustration. Throughout this period, India displayed calm nerves, restrained official statements, military preparedness and firm resolve. India also came across as a better practitioner of statecraft and exploited China’s anxieties with regard to the impending BRICS summit. India’s refusal to stand down and its deft use of diplomacy should add to India’s image in the comity of nations.

Yet, as I have argued in my earlier blog on the issue (Sino-Indian Standoff: History is Turning Page), Doklam will not be the last time the two Asian giants sparred.  Doklam was merely a manifestation of the inherent and inevitable clash of the worldview the two great civilizations hold.  Strong imperatives like China’s need to be seen as a benign power interested in a peaceful rise, India’s compulsions emanating from an economic lag and both countries’ obsession with economic growth, for now, will delay and cushion this clash in the immediate future.  But, more often than not, the two countries will find themselves on the opposite side of the geo-strategic equations even though they are inclined to cooperate with each other in the economic sphere.

Well, even the present disengagement at Doklam has a look of impermanence about it. Many in India expect China to violate the understanding sometime in near future, as it did with the Philippines in case of Scarborough shoal standoff in 2012. That may be misplaced apprehension given the difference in heft between India and Philippines. But, one may still expect interesting sequels from the Doklam standoff. There are two distinct possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One, after the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in October this year, China may revisit the issue and look for an opportunity to ‘teach India a lesson’ at an appropriate time and at a tactically more suitable place.  Two, China and India may impart greater impetus to the resolution of the larger border dispute lingering since 1962.  China has settled land disputes with all its neighbours, except India.  It may want to demarcate its border with India as well before the uneasy equilibrium between the two powers gives way to an uncompromising equilibrium based on economic and military parity. India would also want an early demarcation of the eastern border to materially dilute the ‘two and a half front’ situation it finds itself in.

But that is crystal gazing.  For now, the most important outcome of the Doklam standoff is that it has changed the rules of engagement between China and India, for good.  Ever since 1962 debacle, India has exhibited disproportionate sensitivity to Chinese perspective on any issue of import.  Notwithstanding instances of significantly successful responses to Chinese aggression in 1967 at Nathu La and in 1986-87 in the larger eastern theatre around Sumdorong Chu, India has always shown a remarkable diffidence when it comes to dealing with China.  With Doklam, India has irrevocably made that a thing of past.  Not only did it cross the border to physically stop the Chinese army, protecting the territory of a smaller ally/ protectorate, it held its own admirably in face of grave provocation and ultimately forced the restoration of the status quo.  While Chinese foreign minister has advised India to ‘learn the lessons’ from Doklam, I am sure China must have learnt a lesson or two herself.  Post Doklam, China will expect India to respond immediately and firmly to any perceived threat to the latter’s national interest, the definition of which also seems to have expanded in the meantime.  India has already initiated steps that will support such a response.  Construction of roads along the border with China has acquired a new urgency, military reforms are being put in place and Chinese footprint in communication hardware in India is being put to scrutiny.

What is equally important is the implications of the Doklam denouement for Asia Pacific and South Asia.   ASEAN, in general, and countries like Japan and Vietnam, in particular, will take heart from India’s successful standing up to the mighty China and can be expected to be more assertive in their dealings with the dragon. The US and Russia too will take note of the change in rules of engagement between India and China and tweak their foreign policy responses accordingly. Pakistan, which has been putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket for quite some time now may want to reflect on the same, though it is not exactly spoilt for choice.  Smaller neighbours of India in South Asia will also note that India did not abandon Bhutan in its hour of need.

History has indeed turned a page at Doklam.

Fight Against Terrorism: Inadequacies and Schizophrenia

Contrary to his pitch during the campaign, the US president Donald Trump has, in his first major foreign policy enunciation, renewed America’s commitment to keeping Afghanistan from falling into hands of Taliban.  The president chose to go with the wisdom learnt the hard way that a time-based approach to the Afghan conflict was counter- productive and continued and enhanced US presence was critical to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a potential safe haven for transnational terrorist groups.

The new US policy on Afghanistan/ South Asia comes at a time when the war on terror elsewhere seems to be making some headway.  The Islamic State is finally on the retreat.  Last month, Iraqi forces had recaptured Mosul, the capital of the so called Caliphate, after three years of IS control and have since been pushing further west to the town of Tal Afar, 80 km from Mosul. The coastal city of Sirte, another IS stronghold since 2015, had been demolished by the Libyan forces 8 months back.  In the meantime, Syrian forces have captured half of the most prominent remaining stronghold of the IS i.e. Raqqa and are well on their way to reclaim the city in full.  While doubts have cropped up over the news of the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IS commander, in a Russian raid on Raqqa in June, the Caliphate, spread over parts of Iraq, Libya and Syria stands almost dismantled.

In a worrying development, however, the physical obliteration of the Caliphate in its erstwhile strongholds of Syria and Iraq is probably giving rise to spread of terrorist attacks elsewhere, primarily in Europe.  Be it the London attack of March 22, Stockholm attack of April 7, London attack of June 3 or Barcelona attack of August 17, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for all of them.  Though, there is a possibility that these may be lone wolf attacks that the Islamic State could be riding piggyback, the possibility that these attacks were inspired by IS propaganda is quite plausible. These attacks make a strong point that in today’s online world it is much easier for any terrorist organization to recruit and motivate without actual physical presence and that the IS propaganda, now widely disseminated over the internet is clearly working.  On the flip side, these incidents wherein the attackers used vehicles as opposed to weapons or explosives also show that at present, the IS lacks the capability of carrying out major attacks despite its strong urge to get back at the West for uprooting the Caliphate.

News on terrorism elsewhere is mixed.  Whereas Al Queda has emaciated beyond recognition now, Taliban has been able to thwart the advance of Afghan forces and now controls almost 40% of Afghanistan.  One more Afghan district fell to Taliban earlier this week. In Pakistan, however, significant success has been achieved against the Pakistani Taliban over last three years, though it is still work in progress and the ideological and financial support to Taliban and a score of other terrorist groups, including the sectarian ones and the ones directed against India continues. Al Shabaab, an Al Queda affiliate active in East Africa, particularly Somalia, has retreated from major cities in past two years.  But, Boko Haram, an IS affiliate, continues to be a strong and deadly force in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. In the meantime, the IS has also made inroads into countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Indonesia, the Philippines, Tunisia, Somalia and probably the Indian part of Kashmir.

In terms of location, Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be the top two countries affected by terrorism, with casualties running into four digits.  Pakistan, Nigeria and Russia follow with casualties in high triple digits.  Parts of India are still affected and annual casualties are in high double digits.  Although the US and Europe wear their sensitivity to the terrorist threat on the sleeve, the casualties have been in low double digits.  Among the other large countries, China and Brazil are the least affected, China reporting casualties in low double digits and Brazil, in fact, reporting none.  One is tempted to mention Syria here.  However, tragic as it is, Syria is not a case of terrorist violence in a strict sense of the term but is a multi-sided armed conflict that has its origin in the Arab spring protests of 2011 and has so far consumed about half a million lives and displaced one million people.

 So, how do we rid the world of the scourge of terrorism? Can terrorism be defeated at all?

To explore the answer to these questions, we need to look at the history of terrorism as also its basis. It is easy to mistake terrorism for a modern phenomenon. But while the term ‘terrorism’ is modern, political violence is as old as the political organization itself. Terrorism has historically been an instrument of asymmetric warfare and to that extent has always been deployed by the weaker party.  As early as 11th century, a group known in history as The Assassins were active in the Middle East, killing political and military leaders with an objective to create alliances as also for pure retribution. In modern history, terrorism has manifested itself in what David Rapoport, an authority on terrorism, calls four waves.  Each wave started with a gush, lasted a few decades and then gradually faded even as a new wave gained prominence.

The first wave of terrorism that started in the 1880s is known as the anarchist wave.  It started in Russia under ideological influence of Bakunin and Kropotkin and then spread to the rest of Europe, the US and Asia. It was marked by a number of high profile assassinations –Elizabeth, the queen of Austria, Uberto I, the King of Italy and McKinley, the then US president. The trigger for the First World War also was an assassination– that of the crown prince of Austria, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – though it was done by a Serbian nationalist and not an anarchist.

The second wave of terrorism started right after the first world war in the 1920s and is known as the Anti-colonial Wave. It was directed against the colonial occupation of the French and the British and was marked by the hit and run, guerrilla tactics. Unlike the protagonists of the first wave, players in the anti-colonial wave did not see themselves as terrorists, preferring the identity of freedom-fighters. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) were the representative organizations of this era.  India also saw its share of the anti-colonial wave in individuals such as Ras Bihari Bose, Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh and organizations such as Hindustan Republican Association.

By early 1960s the Anti-colonial Wave had given way to the third wave known as the New Left Wave. This wave had originated in the backdrop of the cold war – at times its hot manifestations e.g. Vietnam war- and was marked by eruption across all continents. Weather Underground in North America, Autonomi in Germany, Naxalites in Eastern India, 26th of July Movement in Cuba and National Liberation Army in Bolivia were some of the better known organizations riding this wave.  Rapoport includes Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East also in this wave, even though the nature of Palestine struggle is a bit different. Hostage taking and plane hijacking were the signature tactics of this wave.

The fourth and the present wave, known as the Religious Wave, is said to have started in 1979 when three seminal events took place – The Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and storming and occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Religious Wave is predominantly identified with the Islamist militia of all kinds spread over South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, but many other religious extremists have been part of this wave.  Sikh extremists in Indian Punjab, anti-abortion Christian terrorists, Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan, Jewish terrorists that killed Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv are a few examples.   We can also treat this wave as an Identity Wave, as Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka also reared its head during this period. But while all of these have since faded away/ been defeated, the Islamist terrorism has not only endured but has exhibited great resilience in face of the concerted campaign by the international community.  Suicide bombing is the contribution of this wave to the repertoire of tactics available to the terrorists.

As the opening paragraphs of this piece suggest, the international community has achieved significant successes against Islamist terrorism, especially since 9/11.  However, I would argue that the Islamist terrorism is rather deep rooted and will last much longer than we may want to believe.  The primary reason for this argument is that the forces led by the West have largely attacked the symptoms and the manifestations of this wave, not the root cause.

The root cause of the Islamist terrorism is the obscurantist, exclusivist and expansionist version of Islam being taught in innumerable madrasas or seminaries across the world, from Africa to South Asia to East Asia.  This is the Wahhabi strain of Islam that has edged all other moderate, indigenous versions of Islam in many of these countries through sheer money power.  Quite often in these poor societies, the only choice available to parents wanting to educate their children is the free madrasa education.  But, the Wahhabi Islam being taught in these madrasas propagates hate towards all other religions, including various sects of Islam itself, viz. Ahmadi, Shia, Sufi and non-Wahhabi Sunni itself.  What is more alarming is that the students are taught that any place not being governed as per the Islamic law is Dar-ul Harb and that it is the sacred duty of each Muslim to convert such lands into Dar-ul-Islam.  While radicalization is not confined to the poor and the disadvantaged, students of these seminaries do provide the overwhelming percentage of the recruits to the Islamist terrorist organizations.

This dangerous indoctrination really took off post 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when the US, in tandem with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, decided to fight communism with radical Islam and motivated the Afghans as also the Muslim volunteers from across the world to wage jihad against the Soviets in the name of Islam. It was only logical that such volunteers were indoctrinated in radical Islam before training them for the holy war. The Soviets vacated Afghanistan long back but the Frankenstein’s monster of radical Islamism is still being fed with unabated zeal in seminaries across the world thanks to the money flowing from many parts of the oil rich Gulf. According to Dr Yousuf Butt, Senior Advisor to British American Security Information Council, about $ 100 billion have been channelled since 1979 towards constructing and operating these seminaries, in training Imams, distributing text books, endowments and media outreach etc. by Saudi Arabia alone. This indoctrination has begotten an abundant crop of potential recruits that have been harvested by various Islamist terrorist organizations, including Al Queda and the IS.

What has greatly helped the cause of Islamist extremism is the concept of Muslim Ummah – Muslims as a supranational community.  Islam, like most religions, predates the concept of the nation-state that originated in Europe in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War and has since become the accepted unit of political aggregation for a people.  No other religion has a problem with that, but the Islamists do not recognize the concept of nation-state and dream of establishing an Islamic state all over the world.  This dream has led to the phenomenon of the foreign fighters joining the local ones against the enemy of the day in a particular country. Thousands of volunteers from Tunisia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordon, Pakistan, Chechnya and many more states have routinely crossed borders to flock at the latest conflict zone to participate in ‘jihad’, the holy war.

Another development that fuels Islamist terrorism is the equivocal stance of governments in many Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria et al. All these countries are fighting certain terrorist organizations and feeding certain others, engendering the deadly and pernicious dichotomy of good and bad terrorist.  The then US Vice President Joe Biden admitted as much at an event last year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government when he said, “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends… [and] the Saudis, the Emirates, etcetera. What were they doing?…. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”  In fact, to a lesser extent, many large responsible countries could be accused of the same double dealings. Role of the US and its allies as also Russia in Syria is a case in point.  Similarly, the US and its NATO allies have not been able to subdue Taliban in Afghanistan for the last 16 years because one of their own allies, Pakistan, has been harbouring and supporting some Taliban factions, including the infamous Haqqani Network, because she treats them as an asset in its asymmetric war against a stronger India. Iran has traditionally supported Hezbollah and Hamas and is at present involved in proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Clearly, till such ambivalence on part of various countries continues, money and weapons will keep flowing to terrorist organizations in opposing camps and embers of terrorism will keep smouldering.

Therefore, even though the world has not let terrorism win so far in any of the theatres, the world has also not scored an outright win either. Even though massive resources – primarily military – have been mobilized against terrorism across the world, the supply lines of terrorism in terms of recruitment, logistics, arms and finances are also largely intact. Counter terrorism and anti-radicalization programs can only do so much. Unless the basic issues of indoctrination and asymmetric warfare being waged by countries are addressed, the fight against terrorism will remain an inadequate and schizophrenic one. To counter terrorism fully and decisively, the world must honestly acknowledge the wisdom that peace is indivisible and strengthen the international mechanisms to address political injustice anywhere in the world in time before it creates avenues for terrorism to get a toehold.


Pakistan: Back to the Future ?

This is in continuation of my last blog on the crisis facing democracy in Pakistan  – Pakistan: Prisoner of a Flawed Narrative

…….and the inevitable has happened. The crisis that one hoped may trigger responses in the body politic that would help strengthen the fledgeling democracy in Pakistan is upon the country now.  Supreme Court of Pakistan, vide its judgement dated 28.7.2017, has disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the flimsy ground that he had been dishonest in not disclosing his earnings from a Dubai-based company owned by his son in his nomination papers during the 2013 general election.  The apex court conveniently ignored Sharif’s assertion that the disclosure excluded the potential income because he had actually received none from the source in question. Nawaz Sharif immediately resigned, paving way for a night watchman as prime minister until the general election to be held in mid-2018. On August 9, the election commission of Pakistan has also instructed PML (N) to elect a new leader as a disqualified Nawaz Sharif is no longer eligible to head a political party.

Tenuous and bizarre as it sounds, the flimsy ground itself is based on another bizarre provision in the constitution of Pakistan inserted by late General Zia-ul-Huq.  Article 62 (1) (f) of the Pakistan constitution declares that “A person shall not be qualified to be elected or chosen as a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) unless he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law”.  Now, that is an exceptionally woolly requirement, especially from a politician anywhere in the world, what to speak of Pakistan and as such, a permanent tool available to the judiciary to cut short political lives of civilian leaders.

Historically, the Judiciary and the army have colluded to keep civilian leaders in check in Pakistan. Army has periodically taken over the reins and the judiciary has provided the justification for these illegal military take-overs under its ‘doctrine of necessity’.  This time, a variation seems to be playing out.  As martial law is increasingly becoming an anathema, the deep state is probably relying on the judiciary to take the lead and deliver the coup de grace. It is true that the army had nothing to do with the trigger for the action from the supreme court i.e. the Panama leaks and has largely kept itself away from any visible involvement in the matter that is sub judice.  However, the fact that two members of the six-member JIT appointed by the supreme court were from ISI and MI respectively, that the JIT submitted its report within two months and that the supreme court did not wait for outcome of an investigation into charges of corruption against Nawaz Sharif before disqualifying him on a rather shaky ground does betray extraordinary sense of purpose on part of the judiciary.  It is the same judiciary that let Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator go out of the country even though several cases are pending against him in various courts, including that of high treason under article 6 of the Constitution (Pervez Musharraf has publicly stated that the judiciary facilitated his exit on the then army chief General Raheel Sharif’s bidding).

So, how is Pakistan taking this development and what it portends for the democratic process in the beleaguered country?

Independent analysts are pointing out that it is a clear case of judicial overreach.  Some see in it the signs of the establishment getting back at a popular prime minister who had occasionally tried to pursue a relatively independent line on issues the Army considers its domain, e.g. relations with India.  At the same time, the opposition and the establishment are hailing the verdict of the apex court as restoration of a moral order in Pakistan. Their task is easy as Nawaz Sharif and his family are widely believed to have benefitted from his three tenures as prime minister. It is interesting that a large section of media too is heralding this as benign, long awaited intervention from the judiciary.  That may not be a surprise in view of the fact that the media in Pakistan, especially the visual media is highly polarised, with many TV channels unambiguously identified with either the PML (N) or the establishment.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. While it is not clear as to what will be the period of disqualification and whether Nawaz Sharif can fight the next elections at all, he has apparently decided to not take it lying down.  Sharif has publicly expressed his doubts over the motives behind the 28th July verdict and is planning to go before the people as the victim. He has already hit the road with his journey-cum-rally from Islamabad to Lahore through the GT road starting August 9.  While public response to Sharif’s rally has been mixed so far, there is no dearth of people who think he has been treated harshly.  Noted Pakistani lawyer and dissenter, Asma Jahangir – no fan of Sharif – has dubbed the ongoing court case against Nawaz Sharif as one of “regime change, not corruption”.  Nawaz Sharif continues to be a popular leader in Pakistan and his going to people would worry the opposition and the establishment who are expected to push back. In any case, in light of the deadlines laid down by the supreme court for enquiry into the corruption charges against the Sharif family – 6 weeks for filing references and another 6 months for completion of the judicial process, the period of next one year until the general election in 1918 promises to be tumultuous and the country runs the risk of lapsing into political instability once again.

Political instability, however, is the last thing Pakistan needs at the moment.  After a long time, Pakistan was beginning to see the benefits of a government enjoying a two-third majority.  In 2016-17, GDP growth crossed 5% mark for the first time in 10 years and the country is on the cusp of a significant period of investment led growth engendered by the Chinese money – loans and investment under CPEC. In any case, the PML (N) government is now expected to be preoccupied with Nawaz Sharif’s battle for political survival over next one year.  If this battle leads to political instability, that may derail an economy that is already beset with many structural challenges, particularly on the balance of payment front.  Exports, FDI and remittances, the three sources of dollar income for Pakistan present a bleak picture.  Exports, at USD 25 billion in 2013, had declined to USD 20 billion by 2016 (in the same period, exports in Bangladesh had increased from USD 25 billion to USD 45 billion).  FDI had declined from a paltry USD 3.2 billion in 2010 to more measly USD 2.76 billion in 2016 and remittances have marginally declined from USD 22 billion to USD 20 billion in last one year.  As against this, the outflow on account of imports and debt service has been increasing at a rapid pace.  Despite low oil prices, imports had shot up from USD 40 billion in 2013 to USD 52 billion in 2016. Outflow on account of debt service was at USD 9 billion in 2016. The CAD had ballooned to USD 12 billion.  Pakistan is now staring at a serious balance of payment situation.  What complicates matters is the country shoring up its forex reserves through debt for quite some time now.  In last 4 years alone, the foreign debt has increased by 35% to USD 80 billion.  Despite this, the forex reserves at USD 16 billion are barely enough for 16 weeks.  Declining Coalition Support Fund(CSF) is not helping and if US carries out its threat of totally freezing the CSF, Pakistan will become heavily dependent on the Chinese loans to stave off a debt default. That kind of dependence on China will have serious consequences for Pakistan, including that for its sovereignty.

The economy is not the only area that will be impacted adversely by a lack of focus in the wake of political instability.  Pakistan’s fight against terrorism at home will be another major casualty.  In last 4 years, the country has achieved significant success in curbing incidents of terrorist violence through a series of operations against militants operating against Pakistan (that it continues to harbour and support militants operating against India and Afghanistan is another matter).  Civilian deaths have come down from 3007 in 2012 to 612 in 2016.  In the same period, casualties among security forces have declined from 732 to 293.  However, with the civilian government and the military getting busy with each other in the event of political uncertainty, the already limited fight against terrorism will further suffer from lack of due attention. That can have serious repercussions for a country that has become a fertile ground for jihadi groups of all kinds and of its own admission, does not have the capacity to deal with all the groups simultaneously. It also means that the country will not even begin to attend to the real fight against terrorism that involves purging its madrasas, the larger education system and its various institutions, including the military, of the extremist mind set and fundamentalist ideology.

The biggest casualty of the political instability, however, would be the beleaguered democracy itself.  No Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan has completed a 5- year term ever and the first smooth transfer of power from one civilian government to another was as recent as in 2013.  Pakistan was on course to experience its second such smooth transfer through the electoral process in 2018.  One may not be too sure of that now as the country hurtles towards political instability. Pakistan has been accustomed to turning to the military at the first hint of a political crisis. Military, in turn, considers itself the only institution standing between Pakistan and apocalypse and has, therefore, traditionally arrogated to itself the right to decide whether and when a situation calls for its intervention. The fact that opposition parties are leading the charge against Sharif precludes their role in fighting on the side of democracy.  As for the larger civil society, their resolve to fight for democracy may be undermined by the discomfort they might have in siding with Nawaz Sharif, not exactly the poster boy of probity in public life.

Yet, odds against the imposition of martial law are also fairly high in today’s Pakistan. Public opinion has been against military takeovers for a while now. Moreover, the dominance of the military in all walks of life in Pakistan is so overwhelming that it does not need to impose martial law to enjoy untrammelled powers in all areas of interest such as foreign relations and defence.  Besides, taking over the messy governance may also mean accountability, something military is not used to.  The USA has also linked its financial assistance to civilian rule under the Kerry-Lugar bill, which means that all financial assistance to Pakistan will cease the moment the martial law is imposed.  The historical alliance between military and judiciary also saw a rupture in 2007 with Musharraf’s mistreatment of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The military may not be as confident of judiciary’s support for martial law this time around.

Therefore, while the fear of the outright military takeover lurks in the shadows, it is not this fear essentially that bedevils Pakistan.  A more lasting danger is that the continued overwhelming dominance of undemocratic institutions in public life seems to have got a shot in the arm from the present development wherein judicial overreach has derailed the career of a political dynast widely perceived as corrupt.  There is a distinct possibility that people will not express enough disquiet at the flagrant judicial excess because they consider Nawaz Sharif’s ouster unworthy of their outrage. This conflation of democracy with the quality of civilian leadership has been the bane of Pakistan. Also, the very idea at heart of democracy that it is the people and people alone, not army or judiciary, who can judge a government is yet to take roots in Pakistan.  Army continues to sit in judgement over the ‘performance’ of a civilian government.  Add to that the judiciary’s penchant to decide the moral compass of the civilian governments and the odds get really heavy against elected governments enjoying enough space and time to create and nurture democratic institutions.  If Pakistan has to become a stable democracy and a progressive society, this needs to change.  For that, Pakistan needs an uninterrupted civilian rule with ever increasing space for decision making for a considerable number of years.  And for that, the people of Pakistan need to come out of the spell of the judiciary and the military and take responsibility for the future of the country.  At present, there are no signs of that happening.

Will Pakistan’s future lapse into a rerun of its past? Heart hopes otherwise ….mind demurs.

Pakistan: Prisoner of a Flawed Narrative

A crisis is brewing in the neighbourhood. No, I am not talking about the Chinese media’s warning-a-day to India over face-off in Chumbi Valley tri-junction. I am talking about Pakistan where, of late, a familiar script is playing out.  With the JIT formed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan submitting a report on July 10, 2017, charging prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family in the infamous Panama Papers expose and recommending reopening of 15 old cases against the beleaguered politician, yet another civilian government in Pakistan has hit a crisis.  The Supreme Court has resumed hearing on the report of the JIT and if the Supreme Court agrees with some of the findings of the JIT, it will most probably have two immediate consequences – political instability in Pakistan and curtains on Nawaz Sharif’s political career.  A logical corollary of these developments would be the Pakistan’s deep state getting a chance to dramatically increase its already considerably large footprint in Pakistan’s polity.

Now, this may seem an extraordinary situation. Unfortunately, it is not.  It falls nicely into a well-established pattern of civilian governments not surviving for long in Pakistan. Reasons may differ, but the deep state has so far been able to find a way to clip the wings of civilian governments every few years.  Why does this happen with such frustrating regularity?  Why even after 70 years of independence, governments in Pakistan always seem a small step away from the military take over?  Will the pattern repeat itself in the present case?

To evaluate that, we will have to understand the nature of the Pakistani state, and for that, we will have to go back to the political history of the country.

Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.

When Pakistan was created by the British in a hurry in 1947- as a ‘thank you’ gift for Muslim League’s support during the World War II – it had little depth by way of political leadership but inherited two strong institutions of British era – military and bureaucracy. Add to this the peculiar basis of its creation, the Two Nation Theory, and you get a state which is severely hemmed in by accident of history, saddled with enormous challenges at its birth itself that would define its destiny.

In pre- 1947 India, political space was completely dominated by Indian National Congress.  All India Muslim League lacked a mass base, which reflected in its lack of electoral successes even in the Muslim majority areas right up to 1946.  As a result, while Congress had an abundance of tall political leaders who had learned the ropes in the crucible of half a century long freedom struggle, Muslim League was bereft of similar depth and stature in terms of political leadership. This reflected in the divergent paths the two countries took after independence.  While Indian leadership immediately immersed itself into an intense exercise of preparing a constitution and setting up of democratic institutions, Pakistan drifted into rule by the civil-military-bureaucracy elite. By 1958, the military had formally taken over the reins and gave impetus to a process that ensured that the dice was heavily loaded against civilian leadership forever. Judiciary legitimised the military coups by inventing a contraption known as ‘law of necessity’ and has generally been supportive of military’s larger role since.

The primacy of military in Pakistan has its origin in the fact that at the time of partition Pakistan received about 17% of the resources of the undivided India, but was bequeathed 33% of the army.  This is an extraordinary situation for any country, but for a country still in its cradle, it determined the course of its life.  The military has had, ever since, a disproportionate claim over the resources of the state e.g. defence budget was 70% of the first budget of Pakistan; it was 40% of the budget as late as in 1958. Even today, it eats up about 25% of the budget if one includes defence pensions. In absence of a credible civilian leadership with a mass base, Military had little problem in creating the bogey of ‘external threat’ to justify keeping its bloated size intact, cornering the scant resources. What also helped was Pakistan’s view of itself as the geostrategic centre of the earth and the USA under John Foster Dulles finally accepting its constant entreaties, adopting it in 1954 for USA’s fight against communism.  This opened the tap of US aid that would help sustain the disproportionately large military apparatus. By 1955, Pakistan had joined two military alliances, SEATO and CENTO, formed by the US against the communist bloc.

However, what sustained the primacy of the military throughout the post-independence period – and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future –  is what has come to be known as the ideology of Pakistan. Developed under its first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, a good 16 years after Pakistan came into existence, the ideology of Pakistan is based on the Two Nation Theory – the theory that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations and cannot live together as part of one state.  The fact that India never accepted the Two Nation Theory – and is, in fact, a big hairy negation of the same sitting right next door – only compounded the matters. The Two Nation Theory became an article of faith with the Pakistani establishment and validating it an obsession.  Pakistani state distorted history to create a narrative in support of this theory.  The ideology of Pakistan became an important part of the curriculum.  It also became the touchstone for any citizen to climb the social and/or political ladder. The military, of course, ensured that the ideology of Pakistan became the very lifeblood of all its recruits.

The ideology of Pakistan derives sustenance from two major planks.  The first one is the dominance of Islam in the governing structure, institutions and society in general.  While Jinnah, in his inaugural speech of August 11, 1947, had, rather ironically, called for the creation of a secular state, the sham could not have carried on for any length of time. Pakistan under Liaquat Ali Khan adopted the Objective Resolution in 1949, giving primacy to Islam and by the time Pakistan received its first constitution in 1962, under Ayub Khan, it had become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a theocracy. Generations of Pakistan army officials have used Islamic symbolism while preparing themselves against an arch enemy defined as a ‘Hindu’ India.  Hordes of Marauders launched into Kashmir in 1948 and later in 1965 under operation Gibraltar derived motivation from ‘Islam’.  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first real civilian mass leader in Pakistan, westernised and socialist in outlook, also fell for Islam in his quest to project himself as an international statesman. In 1974, he declared the Ahmadi sect un-Islamic, hosted the second Islamic Summit and started sending jihadi groups in Afghanistan in his endeavour to secure the elusive strategic depth against India.  He was also the father of the nuclear programme aimed at delivering the ‘Islamic Bomb’.  It was General Zia-ul-Haq, however, who took the Islamic penetration of Pakistani society and institutions to a whole new level.  Zia was fighting what was largely America’s war in Afghanistan, through jihadi groups indoctrinated and trained in Pakistan and he injected the contagion of Islamic fundamentalism in the Pakistani society as well to make the whole process look authentic, as also to add to the unending supply of mujahideen.  He forged what came to be known as military-mullah alliance in Pakistan.  Later, General Musharaff used this alliance to keep the two political leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, out of the political process.

The second key plank of the ideology of Pakistan is the ‘existential threat’ from the neighbouring India.  As the Pakistani nation did not evolve but was created through an accident of history, it tends to define itself in terms of the ‘other’.  That ‘other’ is India, a civilizational state from which a ‘truncated’ and ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan was carved out through an obtuse, and therefore, bloody and messy process.  The legacy of a traumatic partition has left a bitter taste in both the countries.  From day one, the Pakistani establishment has nurtured a belief that India never wanted the creation of Pakistan and has been working overtime to shove it out of existence.  Every school going child in Pakistan is taught that early in the day and a separate ‘Pakistan Studies’ drives the lesson home to the senior students.  The fact that Kashmir did not go to Pakistan in 1947, that India integrated Junagarh and Hyderabad though ‘Police Action’, that India initially dragged its feet on balance Rs. 55 crore of Pakistan share of resources in wake of Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir etc. did not help.  And then India dismembered Pakistan in 1971. For a country obsessed with the notion of parity with India, that truly was the last nail in the coffin.  Creation of Bangladesh has become part of the consciousness of Pakistan as the ’empirical evidence’ of India’s ‘unholy intentions’.  India’s increasing role in Afghanistan has added to the threat perception of the Pakistani establishment which tends to treat Afghanistan as its backyard, not as a sovereign nation.  Pakistan also believes that India is fishing in troubled waters in its restive provinces, Balochistan and Sindh.

The ideology of Pakistan has created a narrative that has sucked out all oxygen from the political and societal space in Pakistan.  This narrative has spawned, and in turn feeds on, a set of belief systems that are not open to question by anyone in the country – “Pakistan has been created by Allah for glory of Islam; Pakistan, with its Islamic bomb, is the leader of the Islamic world and is duty bound to support all the causes seen as Islamic; Pakistan’s location is geo-strategically the best in the world and therefore, the West, especially the USA owes it to Pakistan to keep giving it financial and military aid in interest of stability and balance of power in the region;  Pakistan is a player in the great game being played in the ‘threat frontiers’ in heart of Asia; India is a perennial enemy;  Kashmir is the unfinished business of partition; Parity with India at all costs; India initiated all the wars with Pakistan; Pakistan army is very strong and has won all the wars against India (except obviously the 1971 war, which is blamed on treachery of ‘Hindu bania’!) and has even defeated a super power (the Soviet Union in Afghanistan!); Civilian governments are incompetent and corrupt; The whole world, especially Israel, India and the US are planning to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; Pakistan is the only country that can stop India’s rise etc. etc.”

This is, by all means, an extraordinary narrative to have survived the truth for so long.  Pakistan’s deep state has invested heavily into creating this narrative – distorting history, subverting the education system, deploying the religious seminaries, using the judiciary and  controlling the media (headlines in Dawn, one of the few credible newspapers in Pakistan, on 16th Dec 1971, a few hours before Pakistan surrendered, screamed “Victory on all Fronts”!).

A major cause and effect of this narrative have been Pakistan’s descent into what is widely perceived as a ‘security state’.  Pakistan’s military has sustained this narrative by being in direct charge of the country for almost half the period of its existence and by ironclad control on the defence and the foreign policy even during the remaining half.  It has veto power over Pakistan’s relations with immediate neighbours, India and Afghanistan. It consistently uses media and judiciary to discredit the civilian governments and could overturn a civilian government at will for most of the post-independence period.  The civilians too know their place and have always kept the military in good humour. There have been only three cases where civilian governments tried to have their say – Z.A Bhutto during 1973 to 1977, M K Junejo in 1988 and Nawaz Sharif in 1999 – all with predictable consequences. Voltaire described 18th century Prussia thus, “Where some states have an army, the Prussian army has a state”.  He might as well be speaking of Pakistan.

However, of late, things have been changing for the better in Pakistan. With the USA’s fascination with Pakistan army becoming a casualty of the latter’s duplicity in Afghanistan, democracy has started taking roots in Pakistan.  Even though the army continues to be immensely popular, especially in wake of the operation ‘zarb-e-azb’ carried out against North Waziristan based terrorist groups, the idea that governance is civilians’ prerogative is gaining ground.  After Mushraff’s unceremonious dismissal of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2006, the unwritten pact between the military and the judiciary has also come undone and one does not expect the Supreme Court to cover up for the military as it has so consistently done in past.  In 2013, Pakistan has already experienced the first ever smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another and is due for a similar transition in 2018.  Army too appears content with controlling defence and foreign policy for now.

Therefore, the question whether the deep state will seize the impending moment of political instability in Pakistan to extend its footprint in Pakistan polity to outright take-over once again is moot.  It will also be the test of endurance for the fledgeling democracy in Pakistan and will be keenly watched the world over.  For the sake of Pakistan, let us hope that democracy overcomes the approaching turbulence and the political process does not cede any further space to the military.

Will this crisis be the opportunity Pakistan needs?

Sino-Indian Standoff: History is Turning Page

The standoff between the two largest countries in the world has been occupying the media, particularly in Asia, for the last couple of weeks. Decibel levels are high, with the Chinese state media and some of the Indian private TV channels ratcheting up the rhetoric. However, if one takes a step back, one can see the present episode in one of the three ways – as noise, as one more incident of shadow boxing the two countries have been engaged in since China drew the first blood by blocking India’s bid for membership of NSG, or as history turning page. I would go with the third one.

India and China are two ancient, proud civilisations, with a strong sense of purpose prevalent in both the countries at subconscious – and now increasingly conscious, level. China has historically seen itself as the ‘middle kingdom’ and India considers itself as ‘jagatguru – the fountainhead of spiritual knowledge world would do well to emulate’.  This worldview in each civilisation is bolstered by the fact that the two were pre-eminent economic powers for most of the known human history.  However, the self-image had been put on hold in the last couple of centuries in both the countries as each struggled with European (and later American) domination of international politics in general and of their respective lands in particular.  But as is the case with ancient civilisations, each has viewed its fall as a temporary blip and its destiny as a great power preordained.

With the relatively recent upturn in economic status – more pronounced in case of China, the self-image that had been put on hold is rearing its head again in both the countries. What is precipitating this development is the rise of nationalism, led by muscular leaders, in both the countries. The rise of nationalism though is part of the larger trend across the world, which manifests itself in different ways in different countries. While in the USA it portends disenchantment with globalisation and concomitant suspicion of multilateral arrangements, in China it fuels the desire to create and lead more and more multilateral arrangements to project power internationally and fill the vacuum that will eventually be created by US withdrawal. Its lead role in the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Bank and the ‘belt and road’ initiative are cases in point. India would follow a similar strategy but is handicapped by lack of hard power for now. Therefore, it is following a twin strategy – participating in all initiatives that help it benefit from multilateralism and at the same time, pursuing projection of soft power until it catches up on the other elements of national power. India has had reasonable success with this strategy in recent past and it is being seen as a serious player by the powers that be in the geopolitical soup. Inevitably, while China has just about started seeing itself as the successor of US as the dominant superpower, its worldview is clashing with that of India, which believes it’s behind China only by a few years and that its eventual ascension as a great power is just a matter of time.  Great powers, even the potential ones, do not play second fiddle.

China is cognizant of this reality. Thus, while so far it has taken care to project its rise as peaceful, especially to avoid falling into Thucydides’ trap, it also sees India as a potential rival in Asia, whose rise needs to be stymied in its infancy. Hence its strategy of string of pearls and propping up of Pakistan to keep India tied down while discouraging an outright military clash. However, it will be increasingly difficult for China to pursue both these goals for any length of time, as the two goals call for different and conflicting strategies.  If China has to project its rise as peaceful – and it’s extremely important for China to do so as the US is still the overwhelmingly dominant military power and China’s dependence on exports to West continues, it cannot afford to go to war with a neighbour.  At the same time, it cannot allow a smaller neighbour, and a potential rival to boot, to dictate terms in a visible standoff.

Similarly, India, preoccupied as it is with its agenda of economic development to catch up with China, will find it increasingly difficult to turn Nelson’s eye to China’s aggressive posturing in its neighbourhood. That would not only undermine its idea of self but would also jeopardise its credibility with the world in general and with its smaller neighbours in particular.  This dilemma is now more acute as it is India that upped the ante in the present case by sending its forces into a territory which is not its own.  This is in keeping with the new security paradigm India has developed under Ajit Doval, known as ‘Offensive Defence’ that has so far manifested itself in cases such as hot pursuit in Myanmar, surgical strikes in POK and now crossing the international border in a face-off with its bigger and more powerful neighbour.  Be that as it may, this is unprecedented for India to stop China from constructing a road in what India believes is Bhutan’s territory.  China, on the other hand, believes that it’s her territory and hence its anger at ‘presumptuous’ behaviour of an ‘upstart’ India.  What makes the matters worse is that China is due for the all-important leadership transition in 2018 and President Xi cannot afford to lose face over a tug of war at the border with China’s potential rival.

This is why I believe that the present standoff is not an isolated incident but a manifestation of the conflicting worldview the two hold about their respective destinies.  Therefore, even if it is resolved – and resolved it will be as neither wants to distract itself from the economic agenda for now, peace between the two will keep getting punctured for one reason or the other in the foreseeable future.

This is history turning page. We are headed for interesting times.