Two wars heat up India's elections

Posted in India | 19-Feb-09 | Author: Santwana Bhattacharya| Source: Asia Times

Congress President and Chairperson of federal United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government Sonia Gandhi waves at supporters in an election rally in Agartala, capital of India's northeastern Tripura state, Monday, February 18, 2008.

NEW DELHI - In this year's national elections, there's no hiding from history - or, if you like, geography. No escape from invocations of the 1971 Bangladesh war or the Indian army's peacekeeping adventure in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Past wars have a life beyond memory and rhetoric, too. They live on in cyclical re-runs, in morphed forms. Or maybe they simply never end.

Thus it is with the Sri Lanka civil war and the India-Pakistan war of nerves sparked off by last November's terror attack on Mumbai, two separate war fronts joined together only by the fact that they provide context to India's general elections.

There's no outright victory in sight in either case - it would be foolish to predict an end to such long-range enmities - but both give the impression of at least a provisional closure. The look that a phase is nearing its end. There's no denying that Pakistan looks a bit cornered on the diplomatic front, just as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is down to the last line of defense, despite the appointment of his son Charles Anthony as the next chief commander.

The jungles of northern Sri Lanka, Southeast Asian sea lanes, Pakistan's frontier tribes, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, satellite phones from Vienna: these are strange issues to be buzzing around in the run-up to an Indian election.

Still, India is no different from other democracies: its elections are for the most part a study in self-absorption, characterized by local actors and issues that do not travel well beyond the immediate horizon. But with a truly globalized recession, the transnational flavors of terrorism, and an American election lost and won at least partly on foreign policy, could there be a more auspicious time for things to change?

It bears watching, therefore, as the world's largest and most cantankerous democratic race literally goes around the bend for its home stretch, with only a few months before polls are due. Signs abound that the political lexicon is expanding to include themes that relate to events and people beyond India's borders.

One strand comes from the south, in the form of the LTTE's near-decimation and the very high human cost it is exacting. In the other case, India has scored a moral victory by extracting a partial confession from Pakistan that its soil and the sons of its soil were involved in last November's Mumbai massacre.

Both the developments are being chewed, digested and converted into lively calories by India's election machine.

The handling of the Mumbai terror strike - vis-a-vis exposing Pakistan's role before the international community - has clearly gone in the favor of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). And with good reason. To Pakistan's initial evasion of responsibility, India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee had responded with the question, "Do non-state actors come from heaven?"

From that point to last week's admission by Islamabad that the 10 gunmen who landed at the Gateway of India were indeed not from heaven but Karachi took a lot of diplomatic heaving. But if one looks at what had happened after the terrorist strike on India's parliament on December 13, 2002 - the government of the time massed thousands of troops on the western border for months and more soldiers died of heat stroke than anything else - it was decidedly an improvement.

The same cannot be said about India's response to the Sri Lankan civil war, though. The humanitarian crisis caused in its wake flows naturally into the volatile political mix in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and could cost the Congress quite dearly.

It could be argued that New Delhi was preoccupied with Pakistan and all it did vis-a-vis Sri Lanka was hurriedly rustle up a visit to Colombo by Mukherjee when temperatures rose in Tamil Nadu. Whether the Congress can really hope to recreate a mini 1971-like wave in its favor using the small gains made on the Pakistan front is, of course, another question. Whether it would be good enough to compensate for the debit incurred in the south will be evident only in the next two months.

Western front: All disquiet
However, the signs are a little more positive on the northern front. Things must surely get much worse before they get better. But analysts dulled into habitual cynicism about South Asia's future are wondering: will not a final showdown with the Taliban, and a clear-eyed confronting of terror as state policy, actually contribute to Pakistan's health?

From now on, if India does not overplay its cards, if the Barack Obama administration does not change tack to refocus on Afghanistan, and if Pakistan can really be forced to clean its closets, it could bring the curtains down on two decades of incessant bloodletting and proxy wars. That surely means more than just an election bonanza for the Congress.

Of course, to imagine a post-terror world from the contingent fact of a few terror camps being shuttered down may seem like going too far. For now, there seems to be no easy return of security for common citizenry, no sense of relaxing from constant vigil, no decisive escape from the construct used to snatch their tiny little democratic rights as payment for insurance against future terror strikes. As long as the mysterious provinces around the Khyber bleed from injuries sustained in pursuit of strategic depth, as long as Kalashnikovs pass for small change on the mountain trails to Kashmir, there would appear to be no danger of the region breaking out in peace.

But there is also an inexorable logic in numbers. A sizeable percentage of the Indian votebank is between 19 and 35 years of age, and they want no albatross around their necks. It is in response to their slightest change of mood - say, from anger to one of faint hope - that the Indian government is crafting its decisions. What carries the day is, no doubt, the opinion of the "urban/literate" segment within this votebank. They could be prone to simplistic formulations, but they behave as if they were the spokespeople for an entire age. And with the threat that millions really think like that, even the naive optimism of the average voter can come to have the force of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's because the government has kept a finger on the pulse of this outspoken, blog-sporting generation that it has not stopped talking tough with Pakistan. With an eye on what they might do to election results, the ruling dispensation has kept the heat on, so that Pakistan takes the next logical step ... and the next. That is, it must dismantle the terror infrastructure and lock up dubious assets (like jihadi masterminds Masood Azhar and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi) who obsessively plot to destabilize India. Given that in its northwest it is forced to make peace with a homegrown Taliban (who now officially run all of the Swat Valley according to sharia law), it must appear to some that it is the Pakistani state itself that is being dismantled. But Islamabad has found its room for maneuver shrinking on all fronts and must make these tactical retreats for now.

This suits any government in New Delhi just fine. The question is, how far can Pakistan be pushed to make vital concessions before it starts becoming seriously counter-productive? The speculation in New Delhi's power circles is: a bit more. The idea that a further climbdown by Pakistan is possible arises because it just has to act to keep the international financial aid flowing. The Asif Zardari government badly needs external help to tide over its deep economic crisis and even deeper internal strife. It would also go down well with Obama's special emissary for the troubled zone, Richard Holbrooke, who is in India at the time of writing and making appropriate noises. (The fact that Kashmir was kept out of his terms of reference is itself a tribute to India's growing clout.)

In the aftermath of spectacular terror strikes like in Mumbai, more militarist options too frequently come up for debate. No one has yet sprouted the Obama catchline "Yes, we can" as a retaliatory message to Pakistan, but one never knows: the diminutive Mukherjee may just do it. His manner of working out an immunity package against future terror attacks (like the one the US seems to have worked out) relies entirely on his acerbic, inflected speech.

After Pakistan retracted from its first flush of empathy after Mumbai, and started upping its ante in response to domestic fears, Mukherjee slipped into Code Red mode. Ever since, a daily dose of cross-border verbal exchanges has kept the issue on front pages in both Pakistan and India. Between Mukherjee, Home Minister P Chidambaram and the gaffe-prone National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan, the radar is furiously beeping.

The public hostilities were in a sense necessary because Mumbai had other visible effects. To contain the initial public anger about the UPA government's "impotence" and the age-old accusation that the Congress fosters a "soft state", the government had to finally fire its then home minister Shivraj Patil and also a state chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh of Maharashtra.

Not quite the thing to hope for in the last quarter of a government's reign, so a spot of revenge was in order. (Pakistan also sacked its national security advisor, Mahmud Ali Durrani, for letting the cat out of the bag.) But two months down from November's Mumbai attack, the Congress cannot afford to seem complacent. It must be seen to be orchestrating international opinion - in such a manner as to keep the pressure on Pakistan - if it wants the people to bring it back to power.

Until now, the twin strategy of keeping Pakistan on tenterhooks and international opinion on its side has paid off. And the Congress is making it a prime exhibit in its election campaign. So, while Mukherjee talks tough to the outside world, Congress president Sonia Gandhi strikes a strident pose in the political arena.

Last Sunday, at her party's first major election rally, she sounded a warning to Pakistan to the effect that "India's restraint should not be misread as a sign weakness". And then again, "Nobody should doubt one thing, we will surmount the situation. We will give a befitting reply to forces which are promoting terror from across the border." History was invoked in the same breath - Sonia spoke of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, as the inspiration. Thus, effectively reviving memories of the triumphant 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh, and creating a link to the government's present aspect of toughness.

All this belligerence has filled a vital gap in the Congress portfolio. Sensing the possibility of turning around the situation, it is now going for the jugular. Fittingly then, harsh words are not reserved merely for Pakistan. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party that has traditionally prided itself for being tough on terror, is not being spared either.

Sonia thundered at the same rally, "[A party] which tries to divide society on grounds of religion, which repeatedly tried to mislead people in the name of Lord Ram, cannot be an effective weapon against terror." Now, the BJP had been harping on bringing back a defunct terror legislation that was abolished by the UPA because it erred on the side of being "draconian", but all the present anti-Pakistan rhetoric has helped blunt the BJP's edge. The Congress is now managing the unthinkable - that is, entirely appropriate the terrorism plank from the BJP and make it part of a troika of planks - social welfare and economic stability combine well with security, after all.

For the bulk of the UPA's five-year tenure, the Congress had been fumbling on how exactly to balance its response to terrorism - and growing talk that terror was no longer an import from Pakistan but an Indian cottage industry - with its concerns for its own Muslim support base. But the BJP was always prone to an excessive approach - in state elections in Delhi-Rajasthan that overlapped with the Mumbai siege, it brought out a full-page ad with blood splattered over a full page. The BJP lost in both states, the tactic had clearly boomeranged, and that's where the Congress saw its first opening.

Then Chidambaram, quickly drafted in a replacement home minister, apologized for having failed to protect innocent Mumbai citizens. That did the trick, calming down public anger, and thereafter, in a strategy devised by Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress moved in to close all doors on the BJP. And sensing the BJP's dilemma, Sonia also went full swing into an aggressive pitch against Pakistan.

As an opposition party, the BJP is in a fix. With senior al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid - who claimed responsibility for Benazir Bhutto's assassination in December 2007 and who seems to have been resurrected from death - warning that India would be rent apart if it harms Pakistan, it makes the situation complicated. For the right-wing party which sustains itself on ultra-nationalism, to go for an out-and-out attack on the government when the country is battling outside forces is understandably tricky. Even the BJP's super-confident mascot, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, had to beat a hasty retreat after Pakistan used his line about "the local links of the Mumbai attack" to its diplomatic advantage.

The BJP realizes that a direct offensive against Pakistan by the present Indian government would completely overshadow its poll prospects. Its apprehensions were reflected in party chief Rajnath Singh's address to a recent party conclave. Criticizing Sonia Gandhi's advocacy of "direct action' against Pakistan, he managed to say, "War should not be abused as a tool to fulfill political objectives" - a very surprising statement for a BJP leader. At the same time, a party spokesman was hard put to explain whether the BJP would oppose any war with Pakistan if the present government resorted to it as the strongest possible action. He tried to hide behind a statement the BJP's prime ministerial hopeful, L K Advani, had made in parliament to the effect that the BJP would stand with the government in any steps it took against terrorism.

The BJP is not, however, on the back foot on the Sri Lanka issue. Away from media focus, the firebrand Tamil leader, Vaiko, who goes by one name, landed in Delhi with about 4,000 protesters in tow last weekend. At Delhi's assigned protest zone, Jantar Mantar, he railed against the Congress-led government's refusal to force Colombo's hand in any way. While New Delhi and its media corps obsesses over Islamabad, Vaiko said in a characteristic harangue that thousands of innocent Tamils are being robbed of their lives and livelihoods. There must be something to what he said because his tirade went curiously under-reported.

Vaiko's small political outfit, the MDMK, was once part of the UPA's great coalition but is now hobnobbing with the chief opposition party in Tamil Nadu and the left parties. What might be worrying for the left and also for the Congress, though, is the fact that BJP leader Advani joined Vaiko at the rally. Another left ally, the Telugu Desam Party, also rallied behind Vaiko.

In short, the political climate down south is boiling hot and all the molecules are in furious motion. Will the Sri Lanka crisis change the political equations in Delhi? If that happens, the BJP-led coalition would stand a better chance of reclaiming the Delhi throne for the next five years.

Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.