With the armies of India and Pakistan locked in a shooting match, the fire on the Line of Control in Kashmir, one would have assumed, is the top story in both countries. But the headlines in the Indian and Pakistani media during the last couple of days provide a surprising contrast.
On the Indian side, the media, especially television news channels, are in a frenzy. Delhi’s talking heads, so easily enraged, are beating the drums of war.
On the Pakistan side, renewed military tension with India is by no means the headline. Consider the front-page stories in the Sunday editions of the Pakistani papers.
Right on top is last Thursday’s tragedy in Quetta, Balochistan, where Sunni extremist suicide bombers killed nearly 100 people, mostly Hazara Shias. The bombing, claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is the latest and most brazen campaign against the Shia minority in Pakistan. The Shia community in Quetta has refused to bury the dead and has blocked the streets with the coffins, demanding greater security and the imposition of army rule in Quetta.
A second headline is about the Pakistan army’s attempts at pacifying the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has mounted a series of bold attacks in recent years on the nation’s military establishments. The reports refer to an alleged new decision by the TTP to avoid attacking Pakistani forces and concentrate instead on the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and step up the jihad in Kashmir.
A third story is on the planned “million-man march” led by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian cleric of Pakistani origin, that began on Sunday and will culminate in Islamabad on Monday.
Qadri is widely suspected of acting on behalf of the “deep state” or Pakistan’s military establishment. He has come from nowhere to question civilian rule at a moment when the government led by Asif Ali Zardari is about to complete a full five-year term — a rare achievement in Pakistan.
Qadri wants the dissolution of the present government, postponement of elections due in the next few months, and the formation of an interim regime of technocrats that will cleanse the current system and devise a new political framework for Pakistan.
Finally, the drone attacks by the US on Pakistan’s western borderlands continue, despite the much-proclaimed American embrace of the Pakistan army in the last few months. On Thursday, when the Shia massacre took place, the US launched its seventh drone attack in ten days.
Pakistan has multiple problems, India is just one of them, and certainly not the most important. It was not easy, then, to find space on the front pages of the Pakistan papers for the alleged threats from Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne.
To be sure, there are many in Pakistan who would be happy to return to an “India-centric” national security narrative that could help the establishment paper over the deepening domestic faultlines.
If the UPA government lets the hawkishness in Delhi—both within and outside the government—shape the Indian response to the ugly turn of events on the Line of Control, it would be doing the India-baiters in Pakistan a huge favor.
As it struggles to regain control over a story that has spun out of control, the political leadership of the UPA needs to do three important things. For one, it must remind the armed forces and security agencies that the ceasefire on the LoC is of considerable value and its preservation is a major national security priority for the country’s political leadership.
The ceasefire has not solved any of India’s problems with Pakistan. But keeping the guns silent on the LoC has been an important part of India’s effort over the last decade to manage the difficult relationship with Pakistan.
The ceasefire has helped India focus on advancing the bilateral ties in some areas and insulating them from external intervention — there are any number of busybodies around the world who would like to mediate between Delhi and Rawalpindi.
Second, if the near decade-long ceasefire has been welcome, Delhi had made a big mistake taking it for granted. With two large armies staring at each other along an unnatural line across a difficult terrain, stuff was bound to happen. The ceasefire has been under test for quite some time.
The existing mechanisms of weekly telephonic contact between the DGMOs and flag meetings at the local level are not adequate in coping with the violations on either side.
Delhi needs to propose a framework for higher-level consultations between the two security establishments to continually review the situation on the LoC and manage the problems before they escalate.
Finally, the government needs to act decisively on the long overdue reform of the higher defense organisation in the country. The civilian leadership of the ministry of defense—at the bureaucratic and political level—has never been as weak as it is today. The MoD’s utter inability to lead the armed forces and formulate and implement strategies for national security has been repeatedly exposed in the last few years.
On top of it all, the UPA government has allowed the withering away of the Prime Minister’s Office as the ultimate source of authority in policy-making. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reluctance or inability to supervise individual ministries, departments and agencies has played havoc with governance in general.
But the PMO’s abandonment of its responsibility for national defense is unpardonable and could yet produce a major political disaster. The latest developments on the LoC demand that the Congress party focus urgently on revamping the defense establishment and reclaiming the PMO’s authority to coordinate national security policy.