New Year's Eve, being for revelry, seldom heralds in the New Year. Instead events that foreshadow it do. For instance, 2002 began with the parliament attack of 13 Dec 2001, and the year 2008 was set off by Benazir Bhutto's assassination. By that yardstick, 2009 can be dated to have ended last November itself. Beginning with the hideous terror attacks of 26/11 last year, 2009 may come to be judged as a pivotal one in South Asian history.
The aftermath of the Mumbai events has brought India and Pakistan close to blows. Stakes in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) raging in our vicinity being high, hot words were exchanged instead. The Islamist plan of diverting the Pakistani army from operations against the Taliban on its western borders was defeated. The Lashkar's attempt at highlighting India's internal problems by masquerading as the 'Deccan Mujahedeen' failed, with the bodies of the would-be Jihadis being denied space in Muslim graveyards. In repudiation of action purportedly in their cause by their self styled guardians, 60 percent of Kashmir's electorate turned out at polling stations; this within six months of Arundhati Roy informing of Kashmir's psychological secession from the idea of India.
India therefore begins 2009 from a position of strength. But how it approaches two intertwined security issues - one each in the internal security and external security planes - will determine how it ends the year.
Barack Obama, who ascends to the US presidency on 20 January, has indicated that he will be concentrating on Afghanistan. Towards this end the US has promoted its winning general from Iraq, General Petraeus, and put him in charge of US Central Command overseeing operations in Afghanistan. Already a troop surge is underway. Targets in Pakistan are being hit at will by the US using Predators. The Pakistani Army is to act as the second prong by continuing operations in the FATA and NWFP to the South. The Taliban has an expanding footprint in Pakhtun areas of Afghanistan. It has attempted to choke off US and NATO supplies headed northwards through the Khyber. Periodic terror attacks elsewhere in Pakistan are to carried out to dissuade and deter Pakistan in keeping its part of the bargain.
The two adversaries are poised on a fairly equal footing in the asymmetric war. The outcome of any war, being a play of 'chance', 'policy' and 'passion' - as theorised by the doyen of military philosophers, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz - cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. The only certainty is that the situation shall worsen before it gets any better.
India is in a critical position. The 'proactive' school is for greater involvement of India in the conflict. Alarmist headlines indicate that the Taliban are closer to Delhi than Delhi is to Lucknow. Votaries of a 'boots on the ground' approach see a threat in a spillover of the conflict this side of the Indus. Awaiting the threat at the doorstep is seen as a replay of the much denigrated 'Panipat syndrome' that, in this perspective, underpins India's somnolent strategic culture. Future terror attacks would strengthen this position; quite in keeping with the design of perpetrators of the attacks. India would be back at the juncture it has already traversed twice before, in December 2001 and 26/11.
Counter-intuitively, a decision on India's involvement or otherwise is not likely to be made based on the pros and cons, but instead would depend on the relative strength of the liberal segment of the political spectrum as against that of the right wing. Recent state elections, touted as a 'semi-final', have not thrown up a clear winner. The strategy of implicating the minority in staged terror attacks by fringe elements of the right wing and using 26/11 to project the ruling party as 'soft' on terror has not paid dividend.
The approach of the national elections would likely see a more aggressive right wing and also a rightward shift by the ruling party, unwilling to lose the potentially largest 'vote bank' comprising the majority. Consequently, media fanned public opinion could swerve national policy to a more 'proactive' stance than the precedence of a policy of restraint adopted by India would suggest. In case a Hindu nationalist government is in place in the latter part of the year, India's likely response can easily be assumed.
Kashmir's trajectory would also be an influence. The ascent of the third generation of the Abdullah family to power is very promising. It speaks of energy, youth, imagination and a lack of baggage. Omar Abdullah has also had administrative experience at the highest levels as union minister. Thus governance delivering the electorates demand of 'bijli, pani, sadak' would benefit. However, the consequential aspects are in the hands of the Centre, namely human rights, demilitarisation, autonomy and devolution of powers to sub-regions.
While the central government understandably would not be able to take any major initiative in light of national elections soon during Omar Abdullah's 'honey moon' period, the manifestos of the UPA and NDA, and possibly of the Third Front, should include their policy approach to Kashmir. Thus, on coming to power there would be no further loss of time in implementing the policy package. Mistaking the elections in Kashmir as an end in itself, would be to yet again let the Kashmiris down. In case India is to escape ill winds from across the Line of Control - a negative spiral in the GWOT could easily cause this - it has to approach Kashmir with greater dispatch.
Central and north-east India too cannot be ignored. The death toll in the north-east crossed 1000 in 2008, bringing the internal conflict there within the widely accepted definition of 'war', in this case an internal conflict. 'Liberated zones' are known to exist in central India. These call for an introspective security policy. The fashionable position to the contrary needs to be questioned. Election time is best for this. 2009 provides the opportunity to rethink India's destiny.
At the beginning of the year, India is poised such that she could go along either path. Just as in the earlier era when non-alignment made strategy easy to formulate, equally today Indian interests are reflexively seen as being aligned to those of the US. Since US presence and actions are contributing to a strengthening of Islamist forces in the region, we should be careful not to mistake the problem for the solution. Can the year be one in which India works along with its fellow states within a regional arrangement such as the SAARC to fashion a regional solution to the problem of extremism?