The happenings across the border, which have culminated in the unfortunate assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, are equally portentuous for India, if South Asia is taken as a single strategic space. A regular commentator on primetime TV on affairs in Pakistan, G Parthasarathi, having formidable credentials as a diplomat seasoned through postings in Pakistan as Consul General in Karachi and High Commissioner during the post-Pokhran and Kargil War periods, has opined that, as an immediate fallout, India needs to strengthen its internal security. This is due to the subterranean linkages that Islamists based in Pakistan, and increasingly in Bangladesh, have forged within India. Evidence of their countrywide penetration is the routine periodicity that bomb blasts have acquired of late, with the Lashkar attack in Rampur (UP) being the latest example.
The assasination has driven Pakistan into a situation President Musharraf has been trying to avoid all through the preceding year. Knowing that taking on the Islamists head-on would amount to a virtual civil war, he has instead tried to cauterise the area they are predominant in, the Talibanised Federally Administered Tribal Areas adjoining North West Frontier Province. Their strategy in turn, has been to carry the war to the Army's doorstep in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The latest attack accounting for Bhutto has been a preemptive strike to prevent the mounting of a more democratic, challenge to them through the installation of the US-backed Musharraf-Bhutto combine. This has brought the Global War on Terror (GWOT) finally out of the mountains of the Pakhtun areas onto the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Western powers would prefer such a denouement to bring the neo-Taliban to heel and, thereby, end its shadow over Afghanistan and deny remaining sanctuary to the Al Qaeda. The advantage for Pakistan is in a receding of the fundamentalist shadow from across its polity that has been in place since the Zia years. However, this would be at Pakistani cost and with uncertain consequences, for the western powers are unlikely to change the power equations in West Asia that has prompted the war in first place. Not only is a proportion of the Pakistani army and its intelligence arm, the ISI, known to be sympathetic to the extremist cause, but a significant proportion of the population too is anti-American. Also, the threat of a nuclear state veering towards instability, ethnic turmoil and possible fundamentalist takeover may stay an open-ended counter-terror campaign campaign by the state.
Seen in this light, any extension of the war into Pakistani polity and terrain would be viewed as being at American behest and would lack the necessary consensus. The impending destabilizing and open-ended confrontation can only have wide-ranging and far-reaching implications for South Asia.
India, for its part, should not be stampeded into over-reaction. The commentary and reports on apprehended extremist in-roads into Indian sunni muslim concentrations, that would impel such action, are, perhaps, trifle exaggerated. Other than the incompetent duo of the brothers, Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed of Bangalore, no muslim Indian has been identified in terrorism perpetrated towards its ends. Further, India is also not on the Al Qaeda radar screen, despite passing references to Kashmir in some earlier pronouncements of the nebulous organization. Winter snows in any case preclude any immediate threat to Kashmir giving the state a breather to assess the impending developments across the steel concertina fencing along the Line of Control. Lastly, with national elections on the horizon, reactivation of the right wing, riding on the high tide of the recent electoral victory in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, is predictable. Politicisation of the internal security question, with its attendant alienating discourse on radical Islam's Indian face, can be apprehended.
For India, while the intelligence, policing and judicial systems must continue to deliver on their mandate of 'preempting' terrorist violence, 'preventing' the same is a political function and would entail a commanding political performance. The thrust of the central government requires not so much a 'security' focus, which would other wise be the natural temptation in the circumstance, as a 'soft' focus. The follow up to the Sachar Committee report on the social, economic and educational status of muslims, in the form of the recently released report of Justice Ranganath Mishra headed, National Commission for Linguistic and Religious Minorities, needs to be taken to is logical conclusion. The latter has recommended 15 per cent reservation for minorities, especially Muslims, in government jobs. This has to be done in face of criticism of vote bank politics, a criticism curiously itself directed at creating a vote bank of the religious majority. The strategy of 'indirect approach' would have a greater long-term internal security dividend, even if misrepresented predictably in motivated political quarters in what could yet turn out to be an election year.
Jammu and Kashmir, the state directly adjoining the potentially fresh theatre in the GWOT, is due for elections in the new year. The possibility of early elections in summer has already been broached in the media. Instability across the border could see the infusion of forces into the state, which could then be used for minimizing terrorists' impact on the elections. But terrorists are already on the backfoot with the drawing down of Pakistani support and losses in their ranks to security force operations over recent past. This, coupled with the high voter turnout in state assembly bye-elections indicates that there is likely to be a greater popular interest and stake in the polls. Bye-elections to four Assembly constituencies were held in April 2006 in which the polling percentage was between 62 and 76 recording the highest ever polling in the State. The upswing in voter sentiment could signify the return of normalcy, a plank the central government would like to capitalise on in its run up to national elections subsequently.
Because of the manner in which 2007 has ended, the 'nuclear deal' that has dominated the security agenda has been definitively displaced from the security agenda of 2008. Events in Pakistan have the potential to go terribly wrong should they to spiral out of control at the instigation of western powers. Even in case of a controlled blood bath, there would be a fallout on India that would require to be contained not only by policing action to tackle the symptoms, but, more importantly, through political means addressing underlying causes. Creating and managing a political climate that contains the Pakistani predicament at the border through an introspective approach would thus be the political test of the Congress-led central government.