India’s Congress wins more time, space to plan Pakistan response

December 9, 2008

India’s governing Congress party’s unexpectedly good showing  in a clutch of state elections should  give Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a little more breathing space as he considers a response to Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks which New Delhi says were orchestrated from there.

Imagine a scenario in which the Congress had lost all five states whose results were announced this week (results from Jammu and Kashmir, the sixth state, will be released later this month). The knives would have been out both within his increasingly restless Congress party and from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has targeted him for being soft on national security, running ads with blood splattered against a black background in the middle of the Mumbai siege.

In the event, the Congress took three of the five states, including Delhi, which though small was this  election seen as a bit of a barometer of middle-class India, the section perhaps most outraged by the Mumbai attacks. Ultimately, local issues appeared to have played a decisive role as they have in most elections especially in a democracy like India’s where a large number of people depend on the government for jobs, subsidies  and general patronage.

But the anger for the attacks remains, quite apart from the bread and butter issues. Singh himself  said as much, telling reporters in New Delhi last Friday that India feels a sense of hurt and anger as never seen before and was waiting for Pakistan to act.

{Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s HQ in Muridke, Pakistan. Photo by Reuters’ Mohsin Raza]

So what will he do now ? Stratfor says given the political and national security compulsions, it’s hard to  see a path that avoids Indian retaliation for the attacks New Delhi says were carried out by members of  the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group suspected of close ties to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence.

It lays bare a range of options before India’s military planners from air strikes not just on militant camps in Kashmir but also on the ISI, to a naval blockade to bring a nation already  in serious economic difficulties to its knees. The effectiveness of a strike on a few militant camps in Kashmir is debatable, especially when its members are spread across Pakistan including the Punjab. It would probably have a more symbolic value  than anything.

A strike on the ISI headquarters is another matter and almost certain to provoke retaliation. A naval  blockade plays to India’s strength at sea. But it is nearly impossible  in a situation where bulk of supplies for U.S.-led coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan come through  Karachi port and then driven overland.

Unless the United States were to find an alternative route, through Russia/Central Asia, and it’s a question that has acquired more urgency after the attacks in Peshawar, there is no way it would allow a blockade of  Karachi.

Above all, every one of these actions these carry the very real risk of escalation, and in any war gaming exercise in South Asia, the nuclear threat must also be factored . “All of India’s options are either ineffective or dangerous but inactivity is politically and strategically the least satisfactory route for New Delhi,” the intelligence consulting firm said.

The only way India can avoid attacks is if Pakistan makes major concessions. It has raided a Lashkar camp and arrested some of its leaders.

But is that enough so far as New Delhi is concerned?

{Burnt military vehicles in Peshawar. Pic by Reuters Stringer]

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