The act of expelling diplomats by any country invariably carries political symbolism. The political message that can be derived from the expulsion of a Pakistani mission staffer in New Delhi on Thursday is that the Indian government has slammed the door shut on any sort of normalization process between the countries in a conceivable future.
The big question is, how ‘conceivable’ could be that future? Can a timeline be put? Logically, it could be the next four to six month period.
That is roughly the time needed to get over with the elections in February-March in the Leviathan north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (population: 207 million), which impacts national politics in a profound way and affects the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a renewed mandate in the general elections in Spring 2019.
Equally, the political crisis in Pakistan which has been below the radar will not blow over in a matter of days or weeks, and, more importantly, its denouement remains far from certain.
Red in tooth and claw
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is facing political challenges from multiple quarters: a crisis of confidence between civilian and military leaderships following “media leaks” on a top secret security meeting; confrontational politics by two demagogic political personalities; the specter of mob violence; “jihadis” fishing in troubled waters; allegations of corruption triggered by the Panama Papers; the appointment of a new army chief and the surge in terrorist violence.
If Modi’s mind is going to be preoccupied with the election in UP and how best to chariot his party to victory in a multi-cornered contestation, Sharif will need to get out of the approaching tsunami path.
Then, there is the ubiquitous third factor: transition in Washington. The United States has traditionally moderated India-Pakistan tensions from spiraling out of control. But the only foreign-policy enterprise that President Barack Obama wants to get involved at this point would be the Congressional ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement so that the ‘pivot to Asia’ lives for another day.
All in all, therefore, a logjam is appearing in India-Pakistan relations, which indeed has dangerous overtones.
The security agencies of the two countries will be largely running the show in the months ahead and the politicians will find it expedient too. The diplomats can as well go for a sabbatical. This is one thing.
Thus, the Indian foreign policy establishment would have only advised against resuscitating the crude expulsion of Pakistani diplomats.
Thursday’s expulsion bears all the hallmarks of a bygone era: a “booby trap” painstakingly set up over several months; cops hiding behind bushes with cameramen to photograph the “spy” just as he touched the dossier of classified documents; the prompt detention of the spy despite diplomatic immunity; his release after being gently “manhandled,” and his eventual expulsion under full throttle publicity.
Having seen the utter futility of enacting such farcical dramas, the two countries had shown maturity to come to an inchoate feeling circa 2003 that they’d act like civilized nations and ask spies to simply walk into the sunset instead of subjecting them to North Korean methods.
But then, Delhi probably found it necessary to revive the moribund rituals of a gory past and return the India-Pakistan relationship to its natural habitat of a violent natural world, “red in tooth and claw.”
The Indian analysts share a widely-held opinion that the Modi government is cynically exploiting India-Pakistan tensions to drum up jingoism and to polarize voters along a Hindu-Muslim divide with the objective of rallying the electorate on an ultranationalist platform in the upcoming election in UP.
A senior political commentator wrote last week that Modi might ‘push for’ yet another ‘surgical strike’ (similar to the one on September 29) by the Indian Army against Pakistan, closer to the time of the UP election — with or without any Pakistani provocation.
The point is, Modi’s record as prime minister has been dismal. The Voice of America noted in a commentary two days ago that notwithstanding the bombastic statistics claiming that India under Modi’s watch is galloping away as the fastest-growing economy in the world, ground realities are actually quite stark:
Surveys have shown that thousands of jobs were lost in factories making garments, leather goods and other products for exports in last year.
A recent survey by the government’s Labor Bureau says the unemployment rate rose to a five-year high of five percent.
It is a surprising statistic for an economy that outpaced China to grow at more than seven % last year … That is not good news … One million people are added to the workforce every year. The failure to add employment opportunities for these young people poses a huge challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose promise to create millions of new jobs catapulted him to power in 2014.
However, a tantalizing question arises. What is the certainty that the bad spell of India-Pakistan tensions would end even after the next 4-6 months when the UP elections got over?
Paradoxically enough, whether the BJP wins or loses in UP, the real winner will be its campaign strategy riveted on Hindu-Muslim polarization.
The point is, what lies beyond UP is an even more fateful state election in the autumn of 2017 — in Modi’s own ‘home state’ of Gujarat, where BJP is fighting hard to remain in power overcoming an unprecedented groundswell of mass disenchantment.
Ironically, Gujarat also happens to be the laboratory where the BJP first experimented with phenomenal success the seamless potentials of Hindu-Muslim polarization in Indian electoral politics. And it happened during Modi’s watch as the chief minister of the state.
To be sure, the temptation to carry forward the BJP-Modi strategy of Hindu-Muslim polarization to its triumphal ‘homecoming’ in Gujarat will be simply irresistible.
The heart of the matter is that unless the Hindu mind is trained on the Muslim in antagonistic terms, he tends to lapse into his caste identity.
And, both in UP and in Gujarat, the specter that is haunting the BJP is that the marginalized Muslim and the dispossessed Hindu of downtrodden caste may find common cause as persecuted sections of society unless they are set up against each other.
Suffice it to say, under these circumstances, a prognosis of the trajectory of India-Pakistan tensions through the coming one-year period becomes virtually impossible to make.