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OP-ED: Thank You Modi

Published in Voice of Vienna & Global Affairs (Oct 2016)

Narendra Modi made a telling remark regarding Baluchistan and Kashmir in his Independence Day speech (August 15, 2016). Something about the past few days and how the people of Balochistan, Gilgit, and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir thanked him. There was something else about the citizens of neighboring Pakistan expressing gratitude, and good wishes – which admittedly is an odd thing to do. “The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met – such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen. This is an honour for our countrymen.” The Indian Prime Minister has finally owned up in public to what Pakistan has been accusing India of doing all along – which is supporting and exporting terrorism in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

While China has pricked its ears, though the statement was directed at Pakistan, Baloch leaders in exile publicly thanked the speechmaker. And so should Pakistan. For, Modi – now playing the champion of human rights and a cheerleader for the Baloch right to freedom may have finally over-played his hand. There are many reasons why his innocuous reference set off firestorms across the divide, and beyond India’s Northern borders.

First, this was not said in the heat of the moment, nor was it a slip of the tongue. It was a part of the Premier’s Independence day speech. Second, Baluchistan is not disputed territory. Yes the belt has problems. It’s a restive province racked by insurgency suffering from bouts terrorism, separatist movements – violent uprisings, age old grievances. Lately it has shot to prominence because of CPEC– the famed Pak-China Economic corridor. So there’s a Chinese component in the regional mix, and the mention of Baluchistan at this stage is likely to raise alarm bells. And an Indian spy master was captured. So there is a foreign agency running the show in the background reportedly, and Modi’s provocative language only gives credence to Pakistan’s tale of woe that makes subservice activities by NDS, & RAW or Iran a key talking point on every front.

The question is whether they can use this leverage to push back and get more allies in their corner? It will not be an easy sell. Pakistan lacks China’s clout and India’s bluster at the moment. For Mr. Modi the fresh round of belligerence may simply be a throwback to 1972 when India re-carved the map of Pakistan. So this is hardly a new gambit. But was it wise to admit to cross border terrorism on such a public platform? In these 45 years India has cemented its position as a power player so careless admissions of guilt aren’t likely to affect its standing in the world, as can be seen from the general lack of outrage. But both nations have also acquired dangerous new toys of a nuclear variety since then, so such misadventures will be ill advised in the current scenario. And in their bid to checkmate Islamabad, Indians must now factor in Beijing which happens to be a long standing ally and now investment partner in Pakistan. While, Pakistanis may see it as confirmation of their deepest, darkest fears of Indian interference, Chinese scholars are reportedly ‘deeply disturbed’ by the implication of Modi’s speech. And that’s a first.

The apprehensions of a Chinese think tank may not seem like much. Since poking the Chinese Dragon is now part of the agenda as India enters into a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Vietnam with an expanding sphere of influence roundabouts the South China Seas. The impressive line-up of defense pacts and escalating war of the words by the Indian side undercut the development goals and peace initiatives in the neighborhood pipeline.

How that rant has been interpreted across the board is also worth looking at since India now seeks to expand its role as a traditional rival and neighborhood bully. Yet Indian aggression in the region becomes a good thing in the hand of the right spin-masters. Deflection is what it does best after all. “If there is one thing that the Modi government has telegraphed over its two years in power, it is that it will not sit quietly amid provocations from Pakistan, and that it will not hold back from taking a harder line when the need arises,” says Michael Kugelman, Snr. Associate for south and southeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar.

There is more. “Pakistan has been unusually assertive about India’s current Kashmir crises,” declares Christine Fair, the associate professor at Georgetown University. “I think reminding Pakistan to mind its own business is refreshing. I think Modi has been overly accommodating of Pakistani hijinks. Such a move is well overdue….” She later adds that “the Pakistan army does not want peace. Indian ‘mombatti wallah’ and ‘aman ki asha’ types need to understand this.”

The locals seem to second their hardliner stance. “Excited over Modi’s new policy-putsch”, Swapan Dasgupta says: “The prime minister’s outreach to the peoples in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan assumes importance. Modi hasn’t signalled India’s direct involvement in their battles, he has merely signalled the recovery of our natural frontiers. This outreach now needs to be complimented with institutional capacity building and, most important, the enlargement of our mental horizons. The reach of India must transcend its national borders, as it always had."

There’s even a suggestion of upping the nuclear deterrence against China on land and seas to counter the northern threat. So there might be a potential arms race to look forward too. And finally they bring out Brahumdagh Bugti who has attributed the terrible suicide attack on Pakistani citizens to army excesses for the benefit of Indian Express. “…everyday, we receive news of dead bodies of Baloch people being killed…in Quetta, you saw the whole cream of legal community being killed few days ago. This has to stop, and India can do a lot.” Bugti Jr is the exiled leader of Balch Republican Army (BRA), and grandson of Akbar Bugti, and the DD News team was flown in to Geneva to air his grievances / slander which according to The Telegraph is an unusual step.

The smear campaign, along with Mr. Modi’s strange outburst highlights an interesting change in the geo-political dynamics. While India may be neither rising, nor shiny – it has managed to raise its profile with some well-timed strategic alliances. Perhaps the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) that allows the U.S and India to use each other’s military bases and logistical support as part of the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’ is at the core of this bluster. US Secretary of State - John Kerry’s odd insistence on Pakistan joining the fight against terrorism during his visit to Delhi for the ‘India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD)’ has only armed their propaganda machine. Fortunately, Kerry remembered the blowback and terrible cost of war paid by the people of Pakistan the next day during a speech at the Indian Institute of Technology IIT. But it had already prompted headlines like ‘Pakistan gets a US-India smackdown’. But even when Pakistan’s concerns get buried under mountains of misinformation and distrust – the fact remains. She now has a smoking gun.

Thanks to Modi and his advisors.

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