Context: India will decide its next government as well as a few state governments in a few weeks from now. Poll narratives are being built accordingly by contesting parties and their candidates. While one of the narratives revolves around the field of national security, considered ‘contested’ during election times, as two opposite narratives are being constructed for political purposes, the uneasy calm after Balakot strikes refuses to turn better. This is not only problematic for the larger security landscape in the Indian sub-continent but also worrisome for the immediate future for India.
Three inter-twined questions lurk at us in current times: a) will there be attempts by terror outfits to worsen the prevailing uneasy calm, prior to or during election times in India?; b) if so, what type of response would the caretaker government take to restore order?; and c) how will the international community view India’s emerging counter-terror strategy?
Ever since Wing Commander Abhinandan was released on March 1, 2019, uneasy clam has thus far prevailed. However, instances of cross-border shelling, terror attempts in J&K, destroying unmanned aerial assets like UAVs, sea petrol, mid-night air force exercise, continue to take place. In addition, massive combing operations in J&K by Indian security forces as well as investigative agencies, along with reported arrests of suspected terrorists in Delhi, point to the fact that terror outfits, operating within J&K with the active participation of and guidance from elements in Pakistan, still pose distinct threats prior to or during elections.
The Shadow Of Terror
Intelligence agencies have been warning of possible terror attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in J&K and elsewhere. Consider two recent warnings: i) possible attacks by outfits like LeT, JeM and Al-Badr in J&K in the run-up to elections, targeting political workers in Sopore, Bandipore and Ghanderpal in the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere; and ii) the police in Delhi, Mumbai and Goa have been alerted by the intelligence agencies about twin threats from Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The second warning is especially important as it warns of terrorists avenging the New Zealand incident and a possible strike on Jewish establishments in places like Mumbai and Goa.
One important pointer, of particular interest to India, is related to ‘revenge’ factor, which may have already become a ‘syndrome’ in terror narrative. Masood Azhar’s relatives have been directly or indirectly involved in terror activities at least since the Kandahar incident to date. Consider these: a) Azhar’s brother Ibrahim Athar led the IC814 operations; b) his nephew Waqas, JeM’s commander in South Kashmir was killed in an encounter near Pulwama in March 2018; c) another nephew, Talha Rashid, was also killed in an encounter with security forces in Pulwama in November 2017; d) his brother-in-law Yousuf Azhar was reportedly killed in the recent strikes at Balakot; d) reportedly, Pakistan has taken Hamad Azhar and Abdul Raoof into preventive custody recently, who are reportedly Azhar’s close relatives. Indian intelligence officials say that senior leadership of JeM had always been close family members and each time a relative of Azhar is killed, he speaks of revenge.
Intelligence inputs apart, extrapolations from politicians like Raj Thackeray and top government officials like Ajit Doval merit attention, if not overtly braggart assertions from elements from ruling elites or dismissive/questioning elements from the opposition parties. Thackeray apprehends that one more ‘Pulwama like’ attack could happen during national elections, which he asserts would be ‘engineered’ (by the government) for whipping up patriotic sentiments. Doval avowed that Indian leadership was capable of retaliation, in addition to ensuring security.
What Will Be The Response?
If India faces attacks prior to or during national elections, what would be its response? The immediate response would again be a military-led operation for the very simple reason that India has to take a definitive action as part of the new India’s new counter-terror strategy and validation of the same as propounded in the last few years. How it reacts and which manner, would be determined by the armed forces, with a clear directive from the political executives. Possible impacts of Indian reaction on elections could be two-fold: a) manageable actions if the situation would so warrant, or b) the government could invoke Article 352 or similar constitutional arrangements if situations so necessitate.
Alarmist propositions from Indian side appear to have been diplomatically managed from the Pakistani side by gestures like detention of more than 40 JeM and other activists as preventive measures or opening another religious site Sharda Peeth in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) (Katarpur being the other case). All such gestures can be decimated with a small yet propelling act of violence.
With India’s new counter-terror narrative in offing, it will be a diplomatic challenge for the international community to maintain arguments or switch sides – which way to go. As seen in nuclear non-proliferation debates for the last few decades, one would not be surprised to receive a few strange brick-bats from some countries on Indian emerging counter-terror narrative but finally yielding to it – grudgingly or otherwise.
Deba Mohanty is a New Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst.