One just cannot overlook a more self-assertive India now. It can afford to dictate the agenda, restricting talks to ending terror and Pakistani demonstration of sincerity

by Ali Ahmed

The writing was on the wall

Even as elections in Kashmir ended, the Army intensified its operations in the state, going in for 14 ‘kills’ in Defence parlance. The tally of militants dead is pegged at 86 so far this year. The upping of the ante after the elections even though Ramzan is ongoing was perhaps intended to set the stage for the next government. The new Modi dispensation with its renewed mandate can thus hit the ground running in the trouble-torn state.

Its return to power owes much of the dynamics of its Kashmir policy, from which flows the conjoined Pakistan policy. The Pulwama terror attack provided an opportunity for the ruling party to walk its tough talk. It is a separate matter that the terror attack was arguably brought on by the pressure cooker conditions of the preceding months that resulted in killings of seven, allegedly stone-throwing civilians, in December.

Commentary has it that the reprisal aerial attack at Balakot was put to good use by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to embellish his strongman leader image. His campaigning references to surgical strikes and Balakot can be taken as the outline of his government’s strategic doctrine, illustrated best by his phrasing borrowed from the tagline of a film: ‘andar ghus ke maarenge’.

For its part, as the general elections results came out, Pakistan not only had Imran Khan tweeting his congratulations and hopes for taking the peace process forward with the new government, but alongside take care to test a Shaheen II missile as a signal of its deterrent.

It has also appointed a new envoy to Delhi for exploring any opportunity for talks. Alongside, it is in the process of filling in the position of its national security adviser, vacant since Imran Khan took over, with a military man so that a credible interlocutor is in position for a back-channel process.

Early in his innings, Khan had reached out to India, but amid scepticism that he was fronting the Pakistan Army, he decided to keep his powder dry till a new government was sworn in. During election rounds, Imran Khan made a mention of Pakistan’s preference for a right wing government in Delhi, perhaps believing that such a government, more self-assured, would be more amiable to the give-and-take of negotiations.

Recent feelers include reports of the Pakistan Army keen to de-escalate on the Line of Control. There was a stage-setting exchange of pleasantries between the two foreign ministers at the Shanghai Cooperation Council foreign ministers’ meeting in Bishkek earlier.

How India responds to Pakistani overtures will be known soon enough. Previously when Modi was sworn in as the PM, he invited neighbouring prime ministers to the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt. India may keep Pakistan waiting till it peoples the Cabinet first.

Even as the context to its Kashmir policy is shaping up in Delhi, on the ground, the annual operational momentum can be expected to continue. There is no repeat of the Ramzan ceasefire of last year. The summer campaign under way is gearing up for the Amarnath Yatra.

Since Pakistan is attempting to woo India back to the table, it is likely to keep its infiltration levels down for now though the Northern Command’s chief –reports that it continues its usual tricks. With fewer locals signing up for insurgency – 40 at last count for this year – the security forces are looking to whittle down the overall number of militants currently pegged at 340 further.

The key decision to be taken early by the new government would be the timing of the Assembly election. Autumn is being touted as the likely window after another extension of the Governor’s rule takes it into the second year.

The manner the elections shape up will be contingent on the security situation. In the case of talks with Pakistan, the proxy war will likely be in low gear. Pakistan requires refurbishing its proxy fighters to keep the insurgency going. If its talks offer gets thwarted, heightened infiltration and activities along the Line of Control is likely.

While a political party cannot be held to its campaign rhetoric – intended as such mouthing is to garner votes – the new government could shift gears in case it wishes to reciprocate the Pakistani outreach.

The government is in a position to do this since it has already demonstrated its strength. It can afford to dictate the agenda and restricting talks with Pakistan to the latter ending terror and demonstrating this on the ground.

It can take advantage of Pakistan being on the ropes economically, with the financial action task force keeping tabs on the actions against terror. It can ride its victory at the UN on the Masood Azhar sanctions.

Within Kashmir, the fear over Articles 35A and 370 will energise an election turnout so that the Assembly poses a legal hurdle to any constitutional tinkering by the ruling party’s parliamentary majority. The younger parties will also mount a challenge to their older counterparts, making for feisty polls – putting to rest the question mark over voter turnout of a mere 30 per cent recently.

Though speculation over the twin policies – Pakistan and Kashmir – is not warranted this early, it can be hazarded that the elections crystallise into a strategic cultural shift towards a self-assertive New India. This may play out pending any gear shift towards a softer approach to Pakistan and in Kashmir in the near term by Modi 2.0.