Why Balakot should be kept out of elections

It will be bizarre and disappointing if the election ahead is swung on the basis of events on the Pakistan front, especially the Balakot attack.

Not disappointing because a particular party will win or lose, because that is not my concern. It doesn’t really make that much of a difference to the grand scheme of things what party runs the Centre in India. It is true that there are a few things the current government has deliberately introduced that have harmed us that could have been avoided. But a foreigner looking at us from the outside would not notice that much has been done in the last five years that is in some way totally new. So that is not the subject here. 

So why do I say it would be bizarre and disappointing? 

Firstly, it would be encouraging a line of response that will not solve our problems. Pakistan has made investments over a period of 40 years in terror and jihadi groups. It will need a substantial and comprehensive response that must in the first instance recognise that Pakistan has a strategy. It may be a terrible strategy, which it is, and it is something that will damage Pakistan as much if not more than it does India, but it is still a strategy. And that strategy cannot be undone by a random swat every time there is an attack that inflames the media here.

Have a look at what people who were in the position to study and craft India’s response are saying. Shyam Saran, who served as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and foreign secretary, says: “Has (Balakot) changed the strategic calculus of Pakistan? I don’t think so.” (The Hindu, March 6). He adds that “what is happening on India television these days is reprehensible.”

Writing in the Indian Express (‘There is no silver bullet solution to Pak-sponsored terror’, March 7), former high commissioner to Pakistan Sharat Sabharwal said that the strike was a tactic and not a strategy. Indeed, “the strike may end up demonstrating the limitations of using military power” to end terror. He said that the broad consensus on foreign policy that has long prevailed in India across governments is now “seriously frayed.”

At a media conclave on March 2, former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon said that “unless we have clarity on what we want to do, we can’t decide the options and not much will change.” He said India should focus on engaging more with Pakistan’s politicians, civil society and business community, which it was not doing. 

There is nobody of significance who has said or written since Balakot that it constitutes part of a well-thought-out strategy or that it will be reflected in continuity. It is dangerous ad-hocism. If it brings electoral success, it will encourage further adventurism.

Secondly, and just as important a reason why Balakot influencing or swinging the election will be disappointing is that it will validate the dreadful and damaging actions in the Kashmir Valley that this government has pursued. I say actions and not policy because there is no real policy. The Centre has decided democracy does not work there, and direct rule is better. The hard approach has been questioned often by the armed forces which have said that there is no military solution to separatism. We need to engage the people in Kashmir. This government has no wish to do so. 

The result has been bad for everyone including the military. Fatalities in Kashmir have risen every single year from 189 in 2014 to 451 last year. It is only March and the number is already 105 this year. Armed forces fatalities in Kashmir have gone from 47 in 2014 to 95 last year. Who is winning and what are we achieving? These questions are not being asked and will continue to be set aside if Balakot is seen as a silver bullet to terrorism in Kashmir.

The third and perhaps the most important reason is that such things will take away from issues of substance. I do not mean to say that terrorism is insignificant, it’s not, but it is not at all as big an issue of concern as Central governance on matters like health, education and the economy. 

There is scarcely a mention of these things as the government does a victory lap over Balakot. Health and education budgets have remained flat, adjusted for inflation, tending towards negative in the last five years. All told, we now spend around Rs 4 trillion on security, including the armed forces and the paramilitaries. 

This sum is not even discussed, leave alone questioned. We are not a democracy where things like health care are a priority (quite unlike other democracies like the United Kingdom or the United States, where state spending on health is possibly the most important political issue). I have not even spoken about things like the future of the Right to Information, Right to Food or MNREGA or any number of things which are under threat or being undone because of unrelenting focus on terrorism and the military.

The avoiding and ignoring of these in the election, all of which is deliberate unfortunately, will hurt us as a nation and as a people. If success in the election is attributed to the strike in Balakot, the conditions above will become further ossified, which will, as I said, be bizarre and disappointing.

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