By Ajai Sahni
8 October 2016
Contradictory impulses of deeply inflammatory rhetoric and fitful efforts to bring some reason into the discourse on India- Pakistan relations in the wake of the ‘surgical strikes,’ and the vital sequence of regional and global events that preceded it, have characterised the discourse on both sides of the border, and have done little to clear the air.
In India, hysterical TV debates, and their reflections in the print and Internet media, have been fed by petty posturing of members of the ruling and opposition parties, and there has been a tremendous trivialisation of issues of grave importance.
After much irresponsible talk, Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervened to direct his ministers and party men to back off from chest thumping and jingoism, though the impact of this injunction is, as yet, mixed.
Critics may be inclined to think that this is also a duplicitous posture, akin to the Congress high command’s assertion of unqualified support to the government’s position on the surgical strikes, even as purportedly ‘rogue elements’ such as Sanjay Nirupam and even P Chidambaram and Digvijay Singh, push a different line without significant censure.
Further and crass politicisation has come from the very top in the Congress party, with Rahul Gandhi accusing the Prime Minister of “Khoon Ki Dalali” (pimping blood).
With elections approaching, this is a tiger that will prove difficult to dismount, particularly as long as the media continues to seek out fractious opinions.
With intense and daily exchanges of fire along the line of control, frequent infiltration attempts as well as terrorist attacks - successful and unsuccessful - and continuing street protests and consequent fatalities within Kashmir, this pernicious cycle can be kept alive indefinitely.
Doublespeak has been overwhelming in Pakistan as well. There was great excitement about a report that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had, in an “undisclosed meeting”, warned the Army leadership to “act against militants or face international isolation”, specifically demanding action against the Lashkar-e- Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Haqqani Network.
But the denials have come thick and fast, with the Prime Minister’s Office ‘strongly rejecting’ the report as “an amalgamation of fiction and half truths”, and very quickly thereafter as complete “fabrications”.
A quick return to belligerence has been much in evidence thereafter, with the Army Chief Raheel Sharif leading, of course, but joined by a cacophony of political voices as well.
In any event, a complete U-turn by Nawaz Sharif would also be unlikely, with his deep connections with the Jihadis, and his very recent pronouncements on Kashmir and on India.
It is, nevertheless, abundantly clear that Islamabad is now caught on a cleft stick.
In the coming two to three years, Pakistan will make the critical decisions that will determine whether it survives as a nation state, or disintegrates.
The latter outcome may take much longer, but if the die is cast - if, indeed, it has not already been - there will be little possibility of turning back.
Indeed, even today, there appear to be few institutions or leaders in the country who have the power, the stature or the vision to reverse the tide of Islamist radicalisation in politics.
Can Pakistan reinvent itself as a modern nation state, divorced from the deeply entrenched culture of Islamist radicalism and jihad that the state itself has promoted since the country’s birth?
It is essential that Islamabad, and those who control her destiny, realise that this is the precondition of the environment of intellectual freedom and scientific inquiry that underpins a dynamic economy and society.
No faith-based system can deliver the continuous stream of innovation and enterprise that sustainable development, today, needs - a reality that political readers on both sides of the border need urgently to recognise.
But is this even possible in today’s fractious world, at a time when the most liberal democracies are turning away from their constitutional mandates to embrace xenophobic and extremist right-wing ideologies?
And in a country that has long been the fountainhead of jihadi terrorism, Islamist radicalism and xenophobia?
Leaderships in both India and Pakistan are now confronted with difficult decisions - perhaps infinitely more difficult in the latter case, than the former - in a world that is becoming more and more unforgiving by the day.
Stable states of the recent past have collapsed into chaos and savagery, and many others appear headed in this direction.
Dreadful political choices by the leaders of these states, compounded by equally imprudent interventions by Western powers, forced these outcomes.
States across the world - including many in the West - are not immune to such an outcome.
At this dire moment, it is crucial - though unlikely - that the volatile media in India and Pakistan now back off.
Political leaderships need space to understand and absorb the irresistible forces of current and critical global developments, and to adapt.
Ajai Sahni is an author and expert on counter-terrorism