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LESSONS IN THE SPRING

- India must move forward on Kashmir and Pakistan

A new government that will come into office after the Lok Sabha elections will have the rare luxury of an opportunity to move forward on Kashmir and even resolve other festering disputes with Pakistan. If the new leadership is perspicacious, if it shows imagination and if it can be persevering. If, if, if…

The compulsion for moving forward is very much there: India, now at the crossroads of a new era in geopolitics will once again be stranded by the receding tide of history if it does not resolve its neighbourhood problems, most notably the ones with Pakistan. The opportunity for moving forward is offered by the possibility that by thinking out of the box, a clear prospect of reduced terrorism within the country can be enhanced in the next five years of its tenure. It is a chance that no prime minister since Lal Bahadur Shastri had — not Indira Gandhi, not Rajiv Gandhi, not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To understand this possibility, just look at what is left of the Arab Spring, which spawned so much hope when it all began this month three years ago with the ouster of the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia in the so-called Jasmine Revolution and then spread in a welter this week three years ago to Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square.

For the first time since the Islamic world’s hatred of the United States of America was dramatically acted upon by a group of determined terrorists on September 11, 2001, the US is no longer the constant target of the global jihad. Of course, terrorists will not miss any opportunity to harm the US if that chance came their way, but their core energy is now focused elsewhere. As the new year winds its way through the calendar, regimes in the Arab world have become the main target of jihadists, for a change, because these regimes have, for all practical purposes, crushed the Arab Spring and, with it, the cherished hopes of millions of Arabs and other Muslims across the globe. Just as this has an impact on the US, there is a silver lining for India in this transformation and the next government in New Delhi must seize this opportunity.

There is no need for any tea leaves to divine the scenario that is most likely to unfold in the foreseeable future: enough clues were available at the Geneva peace talks (Mark II) on Syria, which opened in Geneva last week. It is clear from the prognosis at the talks, so far, that President Bashar al-Assad’s side has got the upper hand. They may even have hijacked the agenda of the conference so far. After a week of negotiations in Geneva, the idea of peace talks appears to have become an end in itself. Such a scenario is not unfamiliar in an Arab context. Just look at the Arab-Israeli peace process: the entire international community’s effort for some years has been to get peace talks resumed and to keep them going. If the same fate befalls the process unveiled last week during Geneva II, the most likely outcome will be that talks go on for the sake of talks while Assad’s government continues its well-armed and logistically executed crackdown by a trained Syrian army — and backed by the even better organized Hezbollah from Lebanon — against the rebels.

The secular or moderate opposition to Assad then gets squeezed into an untenable position of having to confront both the Syrian army and the religious extremist rebel militias while the entire opposition becomes radicalized as in Libya. That would give the regime in Damascus bigger and more credible excuses to intensify its crackdown on the opposition by branding them as terrorists with ever greater justification. Which, in turn, then prompts jihadists from all over the world to rally behind the Syrian opposition. It is Afghanistan’s history repeating itself, few people learning the lessons from that chapter in history that created Osama bin Laden.

Not far from Syria, another spring awakening that was heralded with much hope — in Egypt — is rapidly turning into a recipe for terrorist control of it. The bombs that exploded in Cairo last week on the eve of the third anniversary of the uprising, which swept Hosni Mubarak out of power, is proof of the way that movement is headed.

As in Damascus, the military rulers in Cairo, too, shoulder their share of responsibility for ignoring the lessons of history that spawned Osama bin Laden. How else does anyone explain the 98.1 per cent electoral support with which the Egyptian people approved their country’s new Constitution this month — a statute that favours the military, which overthrew an elected president, Mohamed Mursi, in July and incarcerated him.

The army’s spin masters could, of course, claim that a 98.1 per cent vote allowed for and recorded dissent in this month’s referendum unlike Saddam Hussein’s re-election in 2002, when the full 100 per cent of Iraqis voted for the dreaded dictator. Military rulers in the Arab world have never absorbed the lesson that when dissent, even in its mildest form, is put down, the people are bound to turn to violence. This is what the Islamists are waiting for.

Actually, that wait may already be over. The return of al Qaeda fighters to take control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, this month, signals a new determination by jihadists to assert themselves against yet another Arab government, which they see as not Islamic enough. As in Syria, here too moderate Sunni tribesmen are being squeezed from both sides: by the Shia-dominated Iraqi army of the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on the one side, and by al Qaeda’s ruthless fighters on the other. That leaves few options open for Sunnis in Iraq, except joining the jihadists.

Even in Lebanon, where the political fault-lines have been clear for decades — yet unchanged so as to guarantee stability of a peculiar Lebanese variety — equations are now changing, providing a new opening for the extension of a new brand of terror that is sweeping the Arab world from the Maghreb to the Gulf. The recent detention in Beirut of one of the most wanted men in Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda’s Majid bin Mohamed al-Majid, in the wake of a terrorist bombing of Iran’s embassy in Beirut has drawn Lebanon into a pan-Arab fight between structured governments and bands of resolute terror groups with a clear anti-establishment agenda.

Such deepening fissures across the Arab world will mean that it is reasonable to assume that, for several years to come, the energy of the global jihad will be focused on fighting regimes across the Middle East. Secular India, which is anathema to the global jihad, had come perilously close to being in the firing range of these terrorists some decades ago when hopes rose of a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. India was again briefly in their range when jihadists thought they had obtained free passes to Arab capitals in the wake of the spring awakening three years ago.

That left the jihadists free to pursue an expansion of their conquests to countries like India that are both secular and have a non-Muslim majority — or so they thought. The biggest threat to India’s multi-religious fabric does not come from the Bharatiya Janata Party or its affiliates, as some people assume. Such a long-term threat emanates from the global jihad, which Pakistan, too, has skillfully exploited in the past. But with Pakistan’s establishment itself in the firing range of jihadists, Islamabad’s room for manoeuvre against India has been significantly reduced.

That too offers a rare window of opportunity for the next government in New Delhi. But openings like this will not last forever. So the time to think out of the box on Kashmir and neighbourhood relations linked to disputes with Pakistan may be soon after the Lok Sabha elections, so that if and when the Islamist focus shifts away from the Arab world, there is less excuse for the jihadists to concentrate on India.