The Virus Beyond Corona

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By Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)

The Corona Virus is dominating international headlines as it rightly should. However, India is grappling with another virus – the US/Taliban deal. Both these viruses have a bearing on the Indian strategic landscape. There is a subtle shift taking place. While China remains our major threat, it has receded in the near term. The threat from Pakistan has now heightened in the short term. What makes it dangerous is that it is complicated and unpredictable. Needs a bit of an elucidation.

China is the epicenter of Corona Virus. Its economy is going to take a hit. Once the virus ebbs, China will rebuild. The rebuilding process will have to overcome the effects of an economy which was slowing, the setbacks of trade war and the economic dislocation due to the Corona Virus. That will take time. In this time period of rebuilding, China will be wise enough not to flex its muscles hastily. The window of opportunity vis-a-vis China has enlarged for us. That much is predictable. This will be a major factor in our own modernisation plans.

The problem is Pakistan. It represents a virulent incurable virus beyond Corona. The frightening picture in the short term due to the contradictions, which have surfaced, need understanding. The Corona Virus has no impact on the Pakistani economy. There is nothing much to impact upon in any case. That is the problem. Pakistan has fresh wind in its sails post the US-Taliban deal. Suddenly post the Delhi riots, it has started equating itself as being better than India. There is a new strategic strut about Pakistan – it could be assurance or bravado. Call it what you want. We must understand it better since it will affect us.

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The Pakistani economy continues its haemorrhaging march without a let up. As per Dawn “ Inflation is around 14-15 per cent; prices of essentials (energy, food items) rapidly rising; interest rate high; taxes jacked up substantially and slated to go even higher; growth rate very low; unemployment high; job creation non-existent; poverty increasing, as income inequality continues to be high; exports languishing, imports suppressed through higher taxation; large-scale manufacturing showing negative growth; and agriculture not doing well. Most of the people in the country are suffering. However, at the same time, government officials almost daily express satisfaction with the way the economy is stabilising. They claim that even international agencies acknowledge and appreciate the progress Pakistan has been making”.

Additionally, a silver lining has appeared with the collapse of oil prices. This gives some breathing space to Pakistan. However, on ground and at a different level Pakistan is simmering. There are new voices coming up – women’s rights, students and other activists’ protests. These are over and above the PTM and Baloch movements. This cocktail of a poor economy and trouble on the streets makes Pakistan a very vulnerable state. It could keel over with the government continuing in its merry ways that is one way to look at it. However, in an irrational Pakistan that is the wrong way to look.

Under normal conditions it would have turned to China. However, China is beset with its problems. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is not going well at all. A Bloomberg news report calls it a road to nowhere. Reports are emanating that Gwadar Port is far behind the curve. The port infrastructure is all castles in the sand. There were also reports that the Chinese were not happy with the way things were being handled by Pakistan. Overall the Chinese lifeline seems remote. So, it’s back to Uncle Sam and the Ummah. Notwithstanding all this China will continue to arm Pakistan and ensure that its nuclear capabilities are kept sharp and modern. That much is evident in the Chinese ship which was detained with autoclaves in Kandla Port. The collusive factor will not abate.

Pakistan is cock-a-hoop over the US-Taliban deal midwifed by it. There are many major tick marks for Pakistan in this. Firstly, it might remain a failed state but will now not crumble despite all other issues. The US will now go to any length to get out of Afghanistan to serve their interests. Its unholy haste is clear from the fact that a declared terrorist like Sirajuddin Haqqani is given space to write an op ed in New York Times! US will now leave no stone unturned to keep Pakistan afloat so that the Afghan government is controlled and there is no terror related threat to mainland US.

Pakistan knows this and will exploit it to the hilt. Secondly, it sees itself getting back to its old days of running the government in Kabul by proxy by controlling Taliban. It will become the kingpin of the region once again. Its strategic depth is being restituted.

Thirdly, it has already indicated through the Taliban that there is no space for India in the new emerging Afghanistan. The portents for India are clear. Mullah Baradar has not even mentioned India in his thank you speech. That is by itself a feather in Pakistani caps. The fly in the ointment is that Pakistan might not be able to totally control Taliban. The old Taliban was a militant organisation masquerading as politicians. The new Taliban appears to be political entity which is using militancy as a tool.

Their politics are not acceptable to other factions and Afghanistan appears to be heading into a messy and violent future. The uncertainty which lies ahead bodes ill for Pakistan. However, it will savor the moment and worry about such problems on another day. Fourthly the fact that Pakistan is back in the limelight in Afghanistan makes it important for the West Asia, which in turn implies that the Oil rich Gulf states will once again have to support Pakistan whether they want to or not.

What about the situation here? Irrespective of the triggers, the explanations and the reality checks (imagined or otherwise); the Delhi riots which happened when President Trump was on a showcased and carefully crafted visit to India has been the icing on the Pakistani cake. It has allowed Pakistan to come back into the game. Till recently India was condemning Pakistan for aiding jihadists to export terror. Now Pakistan in a reversal of roles, has assumed the lead of a chorus with accompaniment from Iran, Turkey and Malaysia to save Indian Muslims. It is a precursor to turn the Kashmiri burner on. T

he Delhi riots have enabled Pakistan to gain the moral high ground. This is amplified by the loss of sheen in our economy notwithstanding the global slowdown. When the impending knocks of the Corona Virus are over, Pakistan might just start feeling that they are our economic equals and will seek an Indo-Pak hyphenation. Make no mistake. That is the way they think and that is the way things are going to pan out as irrational as they seem. Already Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai the doyen of their nuclear doctrine has gone on record on February 6 to state “the reality is that it is Pakistan that must shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the vital strategic balance in the conventional and nuclear equation with India as the critical determinant of the state of strategic stability in South Asia……….it is compelled to seek security and strategic stability, by investing in appropriate nuclear weapons through quality, quantity, doctrines and the concept of Full Spectrum Deterrence.

Pakistan’s response of strengthening its Full Spectrum Deterrence in an operational environment of relative conventional asymmetry is therefore apt and ensures that South Asia will remain strategically stable”. He was just baring Pakistan’s nuclear fangs. India must be clear that Pakistan will not miss a trick in queering India’s pitch. All this is evident when one reads their opinion makers.

So where does it leave India? The US – Taliban deal and the Delhi riots will act as a revolving door to let Pakistan into Kashmir and the hinterland. One will spur the other. The sum of all facts indicates that while we may be able to manage the rest of India, if better sense prevails, we will now have to think a little differently to integrate Kashmir. Already there are indications that violence in the Valley is on the up. We should not be surprised if we see Afghani fighters back on the scene. We should also not be surprised if ISI takes advantage of the Hindu Muslin Fracture taking place to stir things up in the Valley and beyond.

The Intifada – the dream of all Pakistani Opinion Makers has a fertile and solid ground to flourish from. The Pakistanis will increase infiltration, fight in the hinterland, use the nuclear card and avoid conventional conflict. This will be the manifestation irrespective of their tottering economics, social instability, external debt or anything else. The US-Taliban deal is their insurance. Pakistan will go to all lengths to use all the religious levers in the Muslim world to build an anti-India opinion. Once recovery starts in China, it will hand over the game to the latter. One way or the other the duo will keep us off balance.

What should our response be? We need to get back to our basics. A multi-cultural and plural India cannot get ahead without social harmony. The rocking boat must be steadied. The faith of the International community in India, its democratic traditions and peaceful social fabric must be restored. That will take a lot of political manoeuvring. The moot point is that do we have the pragmatism and wisdom at the required levels to do so? Alternately venal politics will continue, and we can live in a state of argued denial.

The second response must be in getting our economy back on tracks. The economic opportunity in the corona virus must be grasped. This is the time in which India can make the pitch for Make in India as an alternative / hedge for Make in China. Are we thinking on such terms? However, if we are to continue to see banks, financial institutions and heavyweight businesses collapsing like a pack of cards the chances of an economic revival are bleak. Will any one shift to India? The third revival lies in the Armed Forces. Our Armed Forces are poorly equipped with aged weapons. It is not a state secret. The newly promoted CDS wants 1/3 of the men to retire at 58. Also, he has given an indication that the Navy needs to curtail its expansion plans. The Army Chief has said that the role of Tanks and Aircraft is diminishing in the battlefield. Seen together, one wonders what is left? An Infantry Only Armed Force?

The overall strategic signaling is also coming across in a disjointed manner. More about this in another article. However, one thing is clear. It is time the CDS and the three Chiefs sit together and come out with a joint statement. In my opinion they should be able to spell out how they are going to deal with an unstable and irrationally rational Pakistan in the short run. How do we get relevance in Afghanistan? How does the nation get its mojo back in international fora? That must be on an as is where is basis.

At another level, they should be able to give an outline of the long-term shift and modernisation agenda of the Armed Forces and a cogent plan to usher in jointness. Like all things, jointness is a mental phenomenon and hurdle which we must tackle. Finally, all I would like to comment is that if we are not able to affect a turnaround the $5 trillion goal will become a bridge too far.

PS

Recently I attended the Reunion of the Regiment of Artillery. Gen SF Rodrigues, our ex COAS and Hony Col Comdt of Artillery spoke to us. He gave us all some solid and simple advice. He reminded us that the Armed Forces of India exist to uphold the values enshrined in the Constitution of India. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Today I attended a get together of Ex NDA officers at Chennai, where the senior most was Lt Gen VR Raghavan, ex DGMO, from the 11th course NDA. Many topics were discussed. The issue that Armed Forces exist to uphold the Constitution found reverberance in this event also.

This sentiment has come up twice in two weeks for mention. I will leave it at that for all those who are serving to ponder over. I will only remind them that the Indian Armed Forces are the last bastion of the nation and we cannot crumble. (https://palepurshankar.blogspot.com/2019/04/political-crumbling-of-last-bastion-by.html)

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