The furor that followed the murder of five Indian soldiers in the Line of Control fairly shook up the business of politics in India. Though it threw up fistfuls of jingoistic and violent demands from members of the political class, some pertinent questions were raised.
So, for every Sanjay Raut who suggested we cross the border and butcher 50 Pakistani soldiers for the five Indian soldiers who were killed, there was also thankfully an Arun Jaitley who pointed out the biggest challenge facing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
During his address at the Rajya Sabha, like many others in the opposition, he too opposed the idea of continuing bilateral talks with Pakistan, but he traced the roots of the problem to the power dynamics within the various establishments of the neighboring country.
“The distinction between Pakistan’s state actors and its non state actors has been obliterated. It might be a conscious strategy of the Pakistan government to pretend lack of knowledge about terrorist activities. No one knows who controls Pakistan,” said Jaitley. What Jaitley pointed out was an issue that is very much a political reality of Pakistan - who wields a greater control over the state? The Army or the civilian government? The tussle between the Army which almost functions like an autonomous body and the Pakistan civilian government's continued attempts to rein it in has accounted for the most dramatic political upheavals in the country.
The latest twist to the country's tortuous history of Army-government skirmishes is the reinstatement of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan's prime minister. Sharif has always shared a troubled relationship with the Pakistan Army. In his second term as a Prime Minister he fell out with the then chief Jehangir Keramat.
Keramat was immediately replaced with Pervez Musharraf. However, following disagreements over the Kargil War with India, Sharif tried replacing Musharraf too, only to be deposed in the infamous 1999 coup. He only worked his way back into Pakistan's politics as late as 2007 and this year, he won by a clear majority becoming the Pakistan Prime Minister yet again. The News observes that Sharif will now have to tread cautiously on his relations with the Army:
Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to encounter any serious threat from the incumbent COAS, General Ashfaque Pervaiz Kayani as he has only a few months to exhaust as the army chief. Kayani retires before the year-end after completing his two consecutive three-year terms. The prime minister will have to be watchful of the new chief, whom he would nominate. He has already prudently declared that the senior most lieutenant general would be named as the next chief.
The New York Times notes in an article that one of the many reasons that Sharif was deposed in 1999 was his stand on India-Pakistan relations. Unlike Musharraf, Sharif was keen on conciliatory measures with India, which didn't go down well with the Army chief. Also, his attempt to replace two Army chiefs back to back was seen as an authoritarian move. In this third term, Sharif has struck a far more mellow note and has made statements that assure the Pakistan Army that he doesn't intend to bulldoze them.
However, NYT observes, there's enough reason for the Army to still be on its edge about Sharif. Declan Walsh says in a report:
“I think the rest of the army resented Mr. Musharraf’s decision,” he said. “So I don’t hold the rest of the army responsible for that.”
Still, there are hints that Mr. Sharif will insist on asserting his authority in ways that could put the generals on edge. In interviews with the Indian news media in recent days, Mr. Sharif stressed his desire to normalize relations with New Delhi — a subject that the army, which has fought three major wars with India — views as its central concern.
Reuters reported in July that although Sharif wanted to take a less bloodier route to peace and suggested talks with insurgent groups, escalating violence in Pakistan has forced him to turn to the Army for help. The new Pakistan government, reportedly, is mulling the use of military force to put down militants. The Reuters article notes:
Sharif’s tougher line signals that Pakistan’s powerful military still has the upper hand in policy-making, despite hopes that the government would have a larger say after he came to power in the country’s first transition between civilian administrations.
One way to look at the killing of the Indian soldiers could be as an act by the Pakistan army to show the civilian government, who calls the shots in the country and who wields greater power over the country. The strongest possible way the Pakistan army could register the sense of its power with the government, is by hitting where it hurts the most.
Pakistan's international relations have dramatically weakened after Osama bin Laden was hunted down in its Abottabad province and might just fall apart from the slightest assault. Crumbling global repute would imply a cap on international aid which in turn would have far reaching effects on a country grappling with poverty, internal insurgency and external terror threats. The civilian government, in such a situation, will have more problems to deal with than it can afford to with its own resources, sendind it right back to the feet of the army.
A report on DNA quotes defence expert Wilson John of the Observer Research Foundation:
“The attack could be a desperate act by Pakistani Army and terror groups who certainly know that attack will undermine whatever little progress has been achieved since Sharif has taken over. The chances of prime minister Manmohan Singh meeting Sharif in the US now are bleak,” John added.
Sensing that the Pakistan ambush might have been the handiwork of the Army with no interference from the state, the Manmohan Singh government has reportedly decided to back the Nawaz Sharif government in trying to find a solution. Hindustan Times reports:
Despite the Opposition’s ‘there should be no talks’ stance, Singh, according to a UPA minister, feels it is important to stand by Sharif, who too has been a victim of the Pakistani army that sent him into exile for eight years.
However, with the government admitting that violations of ceasefire shooting up by 80 percent in the last year, one needs to see how effective such a diplomatic move will be.
If Sharif fails to make the Army accountable to its own government, how does India expect to benefit from talks with the government head? One solution, as noted in this Times of India report, would be attempting to initiate talks with the Pakistan Army itself. However, with the Indian Army taking the brunt of its Pakistan counterpart's violence, that again might not be in the best interests of the morale of the Indian Army.
Caught in a typical catch 22 situation, all eyes and electoral decisions, however, will be on the UPA to see what it does next. Because nothing flares emotions in India across classes as Pakistan and how India deals with it.