Think Tank


Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times

The NDA government’s decision last year to carry out strategic strikes deep inside Pakistani territory and, more recently, its surprise move on Kashmir, represent a major shift in policy. While the two steps may seem disconnected, they are closely interlinked. Essentially, they are about shifting the paradigm in relations with Pakistan and turning what was previously regarded as a bilateral issue into a unilateral internal issue. At a recent India CFO Forum session in Bangalore, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor at the Hindustan Times, provided a perspective on what motivated the big step on Article 370, what to expect going forward, and how India’s foreign relations are likely to unfold in the coming years.

Seeking a deal that would ratify the LoC and grant more autonomy to Kashmiris

while allowing sub-nationalism to act as a safety valve

Until recently, India’s ‘equation’ on Kashmir was one unchanged since the 1950s. It involved getting Pakistan to accept the territorial status quo in return for India allowing greater autonomy (Article 370+) to Kashmir. The hope was that, once a deal was reached, people on either side of the border would be given greater self-control and that in time, the border would become porous, even irrelevant. Back-channel talks began under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, continuing through the Manmohan Singh years. The closest the two came to an agreement was during President Musharraf’s rule but when he fell from power, the Pakistani Army quickly reversed course. In the meantime, India permitted within the Sunni-majority Kashmir Valley a degree of Muslim sub-nationalism, which acted as a public safety valve. It also provided huge sums of funding to the state – more than even to UP, with a population several-fold larger. Further, it lent tacit support to parties like the National Conference, the PDP and even the Hurriyat, with its soft-separatist views. During this time, India and Pakistan fought 3 wars and each time talks resumed and a breakthrough seemed close, a terrorist strike would derail talks.

No radical shift at first but the NSA had strong views of his own

When he came to power in 2014, Mr Modi did not seek to shift the consensus view on striking a deal with Pakistan. However, his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, advised against dialogue, regarding this as futile, even counter-productive – given how it usually triggers a terror attack. Instead, he wanted India, like Israel, to adopt a policy of military reprisals for each terrorist incident. Mr Modi went along with the ‘no dialogue’ view, realising that his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, held no real authority. However, he held back on the reprisal part, not only because he was trying to trim the defence budget but also because the BJP was working to form a government in the state in alliance with the PDP.

Events in 2016 made it clear that the current policy needed to change

The turning point came in 2016 with the terror attack on Pathankot – which, had it succeeded, would have destroyed several Indian Air Force squadrons. The same year, the death of Burhan Wani, who was a bit player in the insurgency, triggered 3 months of stone-pelting. Everyone was taken by surprise at the ferocity of the riots – and even more so by their spontaneity. No one seemed to be leading them and rioters chanted anti-India (and sometimes pro-Islamic State) slogans, but significantly, there were no pro-Pakistan slogans. This made it clear that even if India were to reach a settlement with Pakistan, it would not be accepted by Kashmiris. In India’s eyes, the legitimacy of local organisations and even its overall Kashmir policy, was laid bare.

Giving the go-ahead to military reprisals, while looking for a way around Article 370

Several factors came together to make a bold, quick change of policy necessary

These two events, and the disintegration of the PDP-BJP alliance, convinced Mr Modi to do two things: accept Mr Doval’s strategy of carrying out military reprisals; and push forward on Article 370. The reprisals policy, deployed first in Uri, and then in Balakot, is now set in stone. In parallel, Arun Jaitley spent two years talking to constitutional lawyers about the feasibility of overturning 370. The loophole he discovered was that, even though the J&K Constituent Assembly no longer existed, since its Assembly had been suspended, the Governor could consent on the Assembly’s behalf to amending 370, but not abrogating it. A full-scale abrogation would have delegitimised Kashmir’s very accession to India. However, the government did recognise that eventually, it would need a (reconstituted) state Assembly to ratify this change.

Circumstances forced the government’s hand on 370. First, Mr Modi’s huge electoral victory gave him the mandate he needed. However, political capital is fleeting and he had to act fast. Second, the step was expected to draw a challenge in the Supreme Court but the court’s present composition is such that it is likely to lean in the Centre’s favour. By this time next year, the rotation of top Justices could tilt it more left-of-centre. Third, the collapse of India’s political opposition provided a small window to pass bold laws. Finally, with Donald Trump seeking to withdraw from Afghanistan – so increasing Pakistan’s leverage in the region – there was no guarantee that America would support India or even stay neutral beyond a point. With so many deadlines to meet, it had to act fast.

The diplomatic offensive launched by Pakistan is failing

but a terrorist strike or even military action is a distinct possibility

Pakistan’s first line of response has been to launch a diplomatic offensive – but this appears doomed. It had hoped to build international pressure, forcing India to reverse course on 370, or at least, resume dialogue. However, it has found little support, with most of its ‘friends’ – the US, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and even China – staying neutral. China has made some noises about Ladakh (parts of which it claims) but has signalled that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. An upcoming summit in October between Xi Jinping and Mr Modi is expected to go ahead, and China has stated that Kashmir will not be on the agenda. (Its limited aim is to avoid a conflict that threatens the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the thousands of Chinese workers engaged in it.) Worse for Pakistan, it has been unable to muster the 16 signatures needed to bring Kashmir onto the agenda at the UN Human Rights Council. Its diplomatic efforts are thus collapsing.

That said, it is assumed that Pakistan will soon do something – whether a terror attack on a major Indian economic centre or even a military strike – to pacify its domestic constituency. However, this will likely happen only after a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in mid-October, when Pakistan’s current grey-list status is reviewed. Should Pakistan strike before that, it would almost certainly trigger a black-listing, dealing a death blow to its fragile economy. Sources indicate that the Jaish-e-Mohammed is already mobilising, which is a major reason why India continues to block internet services in the Valley. India is also stocking up on long-range weapons that can be used in a possible military reprisal.

India will wait for tensions to die down, keeping the political leadership under house arrest

A delimitation exercise will change the shape and composition of a future J&K Assembly, legitimising the government’s actions

Normalcy will return, but after a few years

At home, the government is calculating that the current tensions will subside with time. It will probably keep Kashmir’s political leadership under house arrest for a while. This is as much for their own protection from militants as to ensure that they do not provoke unrest just to maintain relevance. From a longer-term perspective, the government is looking to shift the state’s political balance in such a way that the majority of voters and legislators support New Delhi’s view. It is likely to achieve this, most critically, through a delimitation exercise that began in August.

Unlike in other states, J&K’s constituencies have not been redrawn for the last 15 years – a period in which the Hindu-majority Jammu region has seen massive population growth while the Valley has stagnated. If the boundaries are redrawn to reflect the 2011 Census, Jammu’s share of seats in the Assembly will go up from 35% to 42%. Additionally, since the SC/ST reservations will now apply to J&K, an additional 11% of seats will go to non-Sunni groups. In effect, when elections are held in 2020 the majority of legislators will support the Centre on 370. They are likely to grant post facto legislative approval – the very stamp the Supreme Court will be seeking.

After that, it may take another 3-4 years for extremism to shrink away. Slowly, the majority will accept that Pakistan is in no position to help and that the international community treats Kashmir as a non-issue. A few years down the road, J&K could perhaps again become a full-fledged ‘normal’ state. Getting there will require addressing very real issues around economic development and social alienation. Promoting tourism – which will return once the situation stabilises – would help. More critically, private investment will need to rise from near-zero levels, mainly by making Kashmir more business-friendly. Finally, the centre, supported by private corporations and citizens, will need to do more to integrate Kashmiri Muslims, particularly the youth that move to other cities in search of work.

Focusing on three main areas: America

the South Asia neighbourhood

and on ‘multi-alignment’

Aside from managing relations with China and Pakistan, India has three main foreign policy goals. The first is to make the US India’s main partner abroad. Many of the government’s foreign and domestic policy goals hinge on stabilising the core of this relationship. Even its close relations with Israel and Japan owe much to Washington’s blessings. The only real source of friction is trade and even there, chances are that an agreement will soon be reached. Mr Trump gets along well with Mr Modi but not with Xi Jinping. This, and the US President’s unpredictability, has left the Chinese on the back foot.

India’s second key priority is its immediate neighbourhood – Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The latter has arguably been India’s biggest foreign-policy success, with a complete turnaround in recent years. This, and strong ties with Myanmar, has helped bring insurgency levels in the North-East down to their lowest in decades. Myanmar is key to building links with South-East Asia. In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, India’s goal is to limit China’s influence. Japan will play an important role there, providing both funding and know-how.

Finally, in an unstable global environment, India will continue to follow a policy of ‘multi-alignment’. Its general strategy is to foster ties with literally every country on the planet – including those where India may never before have even sent a Minister. It will try to keep Russia on its side, while Canada has become a key economic partner with huge pension-fund investments. It will also work to deepen ties across the Gulf, with warring countries as diverse as Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It will make a bigger push into Africa, and starting next year, Latin America as well. With Britain set to leave the EU, India has built up relations with France. However, it is also made an outreach to Spain, the Scandinavian countries, and is now working with smaller Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, with whom a joint summit is on the cards. Finally, it will cultivate ties with Indonesia, which has a critical role in South-East Asia.