The government has defended its twin decisions to revoke operative portions of Article 370 of the Constitution and dividing Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories as “internal policy” that warrant no international comment. While the Prime Minister’s moves have a domestic basis, their manner, or “Modi’s vivendi” as it were, must be studied in their broader global context.
The immediate context is the future of Afghanistan and what the deal between the United States and Pakistan for Afghanistan will mean for India. According to reports, an assessment by Indian intelligence agencies that there would be an imminent settlement was what triggered the discussion within the Modi government about a response that would ensure India was not overlooked.
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The U.S.’s deal for the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan’s mainstream has three specific dangers for New Delhi. First, the deal would most certainly derail the Afghanistan elections planned for September 28, or make their results irrelevant. India’s stakes in a democratic Afghanistan go beyond the process since every one of the 17 presidential ticket aspirants is a leader with ties to India. Second, a deal will bring the Taliban, whose leaders owe allegiance to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, into the central power structures and institutions in Kabul. Third, intelligence estimates indicate that after the deal, U.S. troops will not “zero out” completely but continue to maintain between three and five military bases. In the past, America’s dependence on Pakistan for supply routes and security guarantees led the U.S. seeking concessions from India on Kashmir. The U.S. President’s comments in July, during a media interaction with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan that the U.S. counts on Pakistan to “extricate” it from Afghanistan, accompanied by an offer to mediate on Kashmir, set alarm bells ringing in Delhi and dictated the timing of the recent moves. Facing a fast-closing window of opportunity to consolidate its position in Jammu and Kashmir, the government chose to present the U.S. and Pakistan with a fait accompli before a deal was concluded.
The government’s move in Kashmir, which had not been contemplated in all the decades since India signed the 1972 Shimla agreement — India and Pakistan committed that “neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation” — has also been enabled by the prevailing unilateralism in international politics and the concomitant decline in multilateral arrangements. It is clear that the UN and the UN Security Council have few real powers to stop New Delhi.
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Pakistan has itself carried out such a reorganisation in the parts of Kashmir it occupied in 1948: military control and demographic changes in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), or what Pakistan calls Azad Jammu and Kashmir; elections in which its national parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf take part, and an ongoing process to dilute Gilgit-Baltistan’s autonomous status. Pakistan has done all this without any UN pushback. In addition, its sustained support of terror groups inimical to India has discredited its protests on the Kashmir issue. Given that four permanent members of the UNSC have already accepted Kashmir’s reorganisation as an “internal matter” — and China’s dissent is mainly on the issue of the reorganisation of Ladakh and Aksai Chin — there is little expectation that the UNSC petition by Pakistan will make any headway. The Prime Minister can travel next month to New York quite confident that he will not face more than a few uncomfortable moments and perhaps some protests outside the UN, if at all.
The government has already tested the UN’s will and faced no repercussions. In July 2014, the government declared that the U.N. Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) set up in 1949, had “outlived its utility”, and asked it to vacate its premises in Delhi. In September 2016, after the Uri attacks, the government publicly announced it had crossed the LoC, a line monitored by the UNMOGIP, to carry out what it called “surgical strikes” on terror camps in PoK.
While such operations have frequently been mounted by the Indian and Pakistani Armies, this was the first such public claim and faced no pushback whatsoever from the UN. In mid-2018, the government also dismissed the first report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation on both sides of the border in Kashmir, accusing the High Commissioner of “individual bias”. And in February 2019, India announced that it carried out air strikes on a terror camp in Pakistan, after which the Pakistan Air Force dropped bombs over the LoC in Kashmir. Aside from warnings to keep the peace, the UN’s reaction was mild, and the UNMOGIP’s role non-existent.
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During this period, the ineffectiveness of the UN has been writ large over many other similar disputes. Russia’s control of Crimea has only strengthened since 2014 despite a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution, UNSC statements and a “package of measures”. When the U.S. decided, in 2017, to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it lost a vote in the UNGA, but suffered no real action as a consequence of changing the decades-old status quo. Neither has Israel, despite UN censure of the Gaza bombings, and settlements in the West Bank; nor has China changed after UNSC resolutions on Tibet and UNGA petitions on Xinjiang.
Finally, while “Modi’s vivendi” on Kashmir is aimed at his domestic base, it mirrors the prevailing trend of populism worldwide, much like the demonetisation decision in 2016 did: recapturing the national narrative, startling opponents with an unexpected move, and thrilling voters with forceful action. In his treatise “What is Populism?”, Princeton professor Jan-Werner Müller recounts how populist regimes frequently frame their actions as representing the will of the “real people”, a group they exclusively represent. By extension and example, those who dissent are deemed to be not “Real Poles” (prawdziwi Polacy) in Poland or “Real Hungarians” in Hungary. In the same vein was the retort by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to his opponents: “We are the people. Who are you?”
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In populist moves worldwide, such actions are “authorised by the people”, and therefore no blame accrues to the government if anything goes wrong. By contrast, says Müller, democratic accountability would actually mean that the burden is on the government to justify just how it uses its political judgment to ensure desired outcomes.
In the Kashmir case, the government’s actions, which have included the pouring in of troops, a clampdown on communications and the arrest of local leaders, have all been justified through the expressions of euphoria the decisions have elicited among its supporters nationwide. The populist assessment is that any negative consequences — violence in Kashmir, resistance in Jammu and Ladakh to the freeing up of property rights, for example, or the larger impact of worsening India-Pakistan ties on the Kartarpur corridor, Kulbhushan Jadhav’s fate, and trade and transport arrangements — will not hurt the government as they were authorised by “the will of the people”.
The prevailing narrative is that the government’s Kashmir decisions have finally allowed ‘Realpolitik’ to prevail over the woolly-headed idealism of the past that has not benefited the nation in all these years. Furthermore, an influx of investments and non-Kashmiri residents into the Valley will “normalise” it and usher in an age of prosperity. While the term Realpolitik is used today in a positive sense, it is important to remember the context in which its earliest proponent, Athenian general Thucydides introduced it, In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’; here he states: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”
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