Churn in Pak, local pressure behind India’s tough stand

The government's decision to adopt a hard line against Pakistan over the killing of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control was taken on Monday at a hurriedly called meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which resulted in the suspension of the implementation of the new visa agreement and cooling of sporting ties.

A day later, it also saw Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making his first comments on the incident, warning Islamabad that it cannot be business as usual and demanding that those responsible for beheading an Indian soldier be brought to book.

The sequence of events took most by surprise because around 5 pm on Monday, the Indian high commission in Pakistan issued a press statement announcing that the visa-on-arrival system for senior Pakistani citizens would start from Tuesday, signalling that the first part of the new visa agreement was being implemented.

But a different script was being written in New Delhi. The CCS was called to take stock of the flag meeting between local commanders of India and Pakistan earlier that day, as well as to assess the overall situation in the wake of growing anger among the troops and the strong political statements from the BJP.

It was also the day Sushma Swaraj had called for bringing back 10 heads from Pakistan in retaliation, echoing sentiments of troops in the 13 Rajputana Rifles regiment to which the two dead soldiers, Hemraj and Sudhakar Singh, belonged. The CCS meeting was to be held earlier but had to be rescheduled for 6.30 pm so that Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who was out of the city, could attend.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was, however, in Bhutan to deliver the formal invitation to the King of Bhutan to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. The decisions were taken in his absence with Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai representing the MEA, which was broadly of the view that this incident should not be allowed to derail the peace process.

In fact, Khurshid reflected this line while speaking to reporters in Bhutan right after the Army Chief's pre-Army Day press interaction in Delhi. Khurshid said "enormous investment" had been made in the peace process and this incident should not affect it. However, the final assessment of the CCS was quite different.

There was no call or decision to step back from the peace process, but an endorsement of the view that not much was at stake in the process for the moment given the lull due to the approaching elections in Pakistan. And, perhaps, it was important for New Delhi too to give priority to the domestic repercussions of the LoC incident. In short, it was felt that this was not the time take a political risk over a peace process in which the Pakistani Army's own commitment was questionable.

This, sources said, was borne out of the assessment that the Pakistani Army was indeed shifting gears in the domestic political arena and its assertiveness on the LoC should also be read in that context.

It was felt that the Pakistani Army was making certain political moves like the tacit backing of cleric Tahir ul Qadri, who could not have held a rally of 50,000-odd people without the Army's nod, while making it more difficult for other political parties. This is complicated by the uncertainty over Pakistani Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's own plans as he nears retirement in September.

In this context, doubts were raised over whether the increased violence levels on the LoC had anything to do with the Pakistani Army's domestic political moves. This logic was further buttressed by the tough stand that Pakistan took at the local commanders' meeting in the afternoon, denying every bit that India said.

While taking into account the stakes involved in the ongoing peace process, sources said, the CCS was concerned by the fact that the civilian government in Pakistan, which has been the most enthusiastic in pushing forward the process, was quite satisfied playing second fiddle to the Army on the issue of violence along the LoC.

For that reason, it was felt that suspending the implementation of the new visa agreement and hardening the stand on sporting ties, an issue close to the civilian government, was important to drive home the point that the civilian government too has to discuss the stakes involved with its own Army.

On the political plane, the government leadership was also mindful of the fact that it did not want to cede the hardliner's space to the BJP, at least not ahead of its Chintan Shivir in Jaipur this weekend.

In sum, the call was to pull back from the current levels of engagement without causing any damage to the overall process until a suitable response comes from Pakistan. The climbdown at the DGMOs conversation Wednesday could prompt a fresh assessment but only after some wait and watch.

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