India's polls cool war fever

Posted in India | 11-Dec-08 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

An Indian soldier holds position outside the Taj Mahal hotel after last month's attacks on Mumbai. India has ruled out military action against Pakistan following the carnage in Mumbai, but described its neighbour as being at the "epicentre" of the attacks.

NEW DELHI - The unexpected performance of India's ruling Congress party in this month's state assembly elections has gone some way towards dampening the likelihood of armed conflict between India and Pakistan, which had peaked since the November 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Government officials have said the New Delhi government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, could be in pause mode following the party's surprising victory in three of the five provincial elections. The poll results seem to indicate that the electorate is more concerned with the government's performance on development and governance issues than its ability to tackle terror.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had strongly attacked Congress over its failure to prevent recent terrorist attacks in India, particularly the Mumbai strike, in the lead-up to the election. But the ruling party successfully defeated it in Delhi, the northwestern state of Rajasthan, and Mizoram in northeastern India.

Many commentators had predicted a backlash against the government's failure to prevent the Mumbai attack, which left 171 dead, and even Congress leaders admitted privately they were surprised with the results. The BJP's electoral charge, led by stalwarts such as L K Advani, Narender Modi and Rajnath Singh, had focused on the government being "soft on terror".

But rather than reacting to the government's security lapses, the electorate has chosen to reward Congress chief ministers in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh who have bucked strong anti-incumbency trends and delivered on basic promises to improve water and electricity supply, roads, and law and order. The electorate appears to have been reluctant to single out the Congress for negligence on terror, which is fair considering there were also major strikes in India during the BJP's tenure of 1998 to 2004.

The Pakistan origins of the militant group behind the Mumbai attack initially provoked the Indian government into threatening "hot pursuit" into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the disputed mountainous region which has twice led the nations to war since their independence from Britain in 1947. India warned it was planning strikes on militant training camps there ran by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), the group widely thought responsible for the plot, and handed Islamabad a list of 20 terror suspects, including LET leaders, with demands for their arrest and extradition.

"If Congress was defeated in the elections it is almost certain that India would have conducted precision strikes to dismantle terrorist camps [in Pakistan], as Pakistan has refused to hand over any of the known terrorists that Indian wants,' said one senior official who declined to be named. "New Delhi would have needed to obliterate charges it is soft on terror before the general election next spring."

Sources have indicated that India's military commanders had advised the government it would take just two weeks to launch an attack on Pakistan. The initial plan was to send unmanned aerial vehicles, possibly with the help of Israel, if Islamabad did not take concrete action against the terrorism suspects in Pakistan. The list of 20 suspects handed to Pakistan includes the notorious gangster Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed - LET's parent organization, and Hafez Mohammed Saeed, the LET chief suspected of masterminding the Mumbai attack.

While the election results seem to have postponed the plans for "hot pursuit", it has not been ruled out entirely, as New Delhi has managed to convince Washington of the need to take out the terror infrastructure on Pakistan's border with India.

Since a US ultimatum on December 6 which gave Pakistan 48 hours to act, it has reportedly arrested top LET commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhwi, and struck at the group's camps in Kashmir. Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar said on Tuesday that Masood Azhar had been put under house arrest. Intelligence sources have told Asia Times Online that most of the terror camps along Pakistan's Kashmir borders have been dismantled. But officials in New Delhi and Washington have been skeptical of the strikes, viewing them as token efforts aimed at easing global pressure.

"How is it that these terrorist leaders have been arrested so easily? India's top commandos needed more than 60 hours to neutralize 10 foot soldiers in Mumbai,' said one Indian official. "They know that they are going to be mollycoddled and have no fear due to protection by the army. House arrest means nothing - Masood Azhar will continue to have access to every communication tool to continue with his activities and access his people.'

If Pakistan is merely trying to appear strong on the militants until international attentions shifts elsewhere, this may be a high-risk charade, given the high-profile nature of the Mumbai attacks. America is breathing down Islamabad's neck and has given New Delhi the go-ahead to strike targets beyond its borders. At the same time Washington has said it would not tolerate war breaking out between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistan has made it clear that it will not hand over any of its recently captured terrorist suspects to India, however, its defense minister has suggested it is prepared for joint interrogations or probes with India. This could be a significant step but this depends on wether the Pakistan government's control of the country is as tenuous as has been suggested. Also, even if there is a joint probe, Pakistan's army could use the opportunity to drum up nationalistic fervor against India.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recently said that the main impetus of the attacks could have been to stir up a Pakistan-India conflict. "These terrorists are undoubtedly unnerved by the increasingly good relations between Pakistan and India, really going back before the civilian government" but certainly since President Asif Ali Zardari came into power, she said in an interview on CBS News Radio on Wednesday.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist an WSN Editor India. He can be reached at [email protected])