Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The current LoC narrative and India’s response

Lt General S A Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (Bar), VSM (Bar), 
Visiting Fellow, VIF

In conventional warfare command decisions are based on a range of options, the escalation matrix is well understood and risk is quite easily calculated on the basis of resources, surprise and leadership. However, in irregular warfare the challenge of decision making is sometimes of a higher order. Keeping the threshold low and escalation within control is difficult. The situation on the LoC in J&K is tricky and quite unlike situations which present themselves in conventional operations. However, a non-military mind may not fully grasp this as common perception prevails that there is nothing more to ceasefire violations than simply kinetic responses, the tit for tat concept. The ‘force on force’ approach has never found winners and is considered the unprofessional way of tackling an adversary. However, India’s military leadership which is quite capable of ‘indirect approach’ is yet to fully exploit the chinks in Pakistan’s armor. Has the time come for ratcheting our response by many notches?

The situation which presents itself needs a brief reiteration. The Valley and its LoC segment is comparatively quiet and even in the hinterland only small scale militant actions are taking place; mainly by our proactive search for contact. South of PirPanjal the LoC is active both in the Poonch-Rajouri segment and the Jammu IB sector. Large scale terrorist actions have not been attempted although the Udhampur ambush, Gurdaspur strike and the earlier actions at Samba and Kathua severely tested India’s will and tolerance despite being classified as small scale in nature, in the comparison of terror related events. Infiltration which can never be zero is down to very low levels although Naveed, the young Pakistani terrorist captured at Udhampur has confirmed his route of infiltration in Gulmarg sector. It may be incorrect to dismiss the ceasefire violations in passing; these are assuming dimensions larger than witnessed for many years. In pre-2003 daysthe exchanges were far heavier but they could still be accepted. In today’s world of televised news they form a breaking news story every day, hurting the sensitivities of the public. This in turn is putting pressure on the Government and much more on the Army which is required to respond and put an end to this. Armies are not very good at calibrated responses; they prefer a no holds barred engagement.

In trans LoC exchanges of fire there can only be temporary victories between armies; the effect on troops is marginal but the civil population in the vicinity suffers immensely. We are apparently still in the mode of counting the number of violations by Pakistan Army without realizing that the ceasefire in the South of Pir Panjal is as good as dead. It continues to hold in the Valley’s LoC segment. Can we declare boldly that the ceasefire has ceased to exist and India reserves the right to use its weaponry and manpower at place and time of choosing? There never was a formal ceasefire agreement, just a declaration by both sides with Pakistan no doubt taking the lead.

Pakistan is firm of the belief that India is too obsessed with her economic growth and development to risk a full scale conflict. It is calculating its risks very carefully so as not to breach the limit of tolerance or the proverbial ‘tipping point’. The nuclear capability is an artificial protection which Pakistan’s military leadership considers its trump card and which it assesses will keep India acting rationally. Its leaders give veiled threats of the use of the nuclear option if India responds conventionally. With this assessment Pakistan feels emboldened to play the J&K card even as it is embroiled in bitter and violent turbulence brought on by home grown terror. It is also seeking to enhance its strategic hold over Afghanistan. Having sensed J&K slipping from its control it has gone into an overdrive which it feels it can calibrate.

Given the analysis above it is clear that the nexus of the Deep State is completely outside the ambit of political control in Pakistan and it can act irrationally to the extreme without considering the impact or outcome of its actions. Pakistan’s recent foreign policy successes with different international players, has added to this confidence. The bottom line seems to be that India will not risk conflict, it will respond in kind on the LoC and this will help in sensitizing the international community on the potential of war in a nuclear environment. From the utterances on media there seems to be a tutored line to demand investigation by a neutral agency recommended to be UNMOGIP, in order to revive the UN resolutions. As a result of its actions Pakistan is attempting to brow beat India militarily, diplomatically and most important psychologically. In the season of the run up to the Golden Jubilee of the 1965 Indo Pak Conflict, Pakistan realizes that there is considerable research going on in India and the celebratory events will project the defeat of the Pakistan Armed Forces. By upping the ante through LoC exchanges it hopes to retain the self-image of being the victor of the 1965 conflict.

What are India’s options? This question a week before the slated NSA level talks does appear strange and puts the Government under pressure. Through history nations have often remained engaged in discussions even as armies fought on the battlefield. It is a part of the comprehensive narrative of war that whatever be the level of engagement the last edge of the war spectrum is never reached; a miniscule window is always open for reason or conveyance of messages. The Indian Government need never be under pressure on the issue of talks and engagement and can adopt other proactive measures which continue to counter the adversary’s intent. We too have a perception of an escalation matrix and can work within its parameters. What would this involve?

Firstly, public perception cannot be wished away. It cannot lose its confidence in the capability of its armed forces. Therefore a response in kind along the LoC is an absolute necessity. It needs to be to a plan and not just a shell for shell and bomb for bomb response. There are many areas in which we hold a major terrain advantage. In 2011 the J&K media would recall reports from PoK of a segment of people there who held a demonstration before the office of the local DC demanding that Jihadi terrorists be evicted from their area as the people did not wish to see the triggering of exchanges of shelling along the LoC. There are many such locations along the LoC where we hold a major advantage towards hurting the logistics of the Pakistan Army and imposing a time and financial penalty. These are well known within the Army. The transLoC small pin prick actions can be responded in kind quite easily as was done prior to 2003. These are just the first baby steps in response and we need not even be in denial mode on these as Pakistan is. Pakistan can escalate in response, by expanding the ambit to Ladakh; it is not as if we have not lived with this in the past. It is just the quest for rationalism and better sense which has dictated our response discourse. In the bargain a perception has been built within the Deep State that we will not defend our honor because we are obsessed with our growth process. This perception has to be firmly put down through an escalatory ladder of response.

Secondly, the openness of media and the free discussion on India’s military capabilities in the true democratic spirit may have hurt us in terms of a negative perception. This perception appears to have seeped into Pakistan’s thinking. The lack of modernization of artillery and air defence, the inability to induct helicopters and the MMRCA as also aspects such as insufficient ammunition holdings are no doubt issues of concern. However, many of these problems have existed and it is not as if the Pakistan Armed Forces are equipped optimally. India’s Armed Forces need to shed their reticence, speak up and demonstrate. They cannot be perceived to be defensive when offensive nature of conflict forms the cornerstone of their doctrine. The message should be clear; we are prepared always, the gaps are work in progress.

In recent years the Indian Armed Forces have taken a psychological beating due to being embroiled in nonprofessional issues. They are tied in thousands of legal cases involving personnel, pensions, land etc which dilutes the perception of their professionalism. This appears to be sending home incorrect messages to our adversaries. It is a world of perception and psychological warfare has never been our strongest point. The recent OROP controversy needs to be placed at rest the earliest as it is harming our national image. Pakistan must be under no delusion that this has affected our war fighting capability.

Only a few aspects of escalation have been explained above due to space constraints. Our professional warriors know the game well and need to demand their space from the Government. At the Government level my only recommendation is the early conception of psychological warfare machinery. It can start with the MoD loosening the ropes on the public information system of the three Services,in which strides are being made but only gingerly. Half the problem on the LoC is because of incorrect perception that the Deep State holds. Time we gave the perception that we can be even more irrational than what Pakistan is. Who better than the NSA to convey that message and leave the spectrum of response open as per our choice.

(The writer is an ex GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group)

Published in DailyExcelsior.Com 19 August 2015. Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Develop other options against Pakistan before talking

A proper atmosphere has to be created for talks between any two countries to progress. In the case of India and Pakistan, with decades of conflict and mistrust poisoning their relationship, it should be all the more necessary to abjure any aggravating action or rhetoric that would foul up the atmosphere even before the talks have begun. If there is sincerity in wanting to turn the page in the relationship, then past tactics have to be discarded. Looking back, however, almost every time that talks are to be held, the Pakistani side has engineered a violent incident on our soil as a pressure point, reminding us of our vulnerability to terrorism and highlighting through such tactics the Kashmir issue as a flash-point between two nuclear armed states that needs international attention. Pakistan has done this again in advance of the proposed meeting of the National Security Advisers of the two countries on August 23 by staging the terrorist incidents at Gurdaspur and Udhampur.

In this there is an uncanny similarity between Pakistani tactics and those of China, whether it was the statement of the Chinese ambassador’s sweeping statement on Arunachal Pradesh just before president Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to India, the Depsang incident before the Chinese premier’s visit to India in 2013 and the Chumar incident coinciding with the visit of president Xi to India in 2014. Which suggests that in the case of both countries these are well considered political tactics, in which the political and military authorities are complicit. The distinction we make about the “civilian” government and the military in Pakistan is a political and psychological trap that we must not fall into. It is worth remembering that it is not the Pakistan military that originated the two nation theory or was responsible for the partition of India. It was until president Zia began the process of Islamisation of the armed forces, they were supposed to be relatively more “secular” than the rest of the population. It is Pakistan’s civilian population that is the breeding ground of religious hatred of India which, in turn, complements the inimical feelings toward India of the armed forces.

Prime Minister Modi’s decision at Ufa to renew the dialogue with Pakistan despite its ceasefire violations, Nawaz Sharif’s persistence in agitating the Kashmir issue and his adviser Sartaz Aziz’s periodic fulminations against india, to the point of accusing us even of involvement in the Peshawar school terrorist attack, was unexpected. It might be that we felt that reaching out to Pakistan at Ufa, where both became SCO members, would be a reassuring political signal to other members that India, at least, was ready to insulate the SCO agenda from India-Pakistan differences. It may well be, as one understands, that the initiative had come from Nawaz Sharif. The Indian media censure of Modi for cold-shouldering Nawaz Sharif at the Kathmandu SAARC summit might also have been in the mind of our decision-makers.

If Modi’s decision to engage Nawaz Sharif at Ufa caused some unease in sections of our strategic community, the Pakistani PM was pilloried in Pakistan for the agreed joint press release, including from those who participate regularly in Track 2 dialogues with India and are considered “moderates”. That these “moderates” too are unable to overcome the 68 year old Kashmir obsession of Pakistan speaks volumes about the intrinsically negative attitude of the Pakistani establishment towards India. These very “moderates” would you have you believe that there is more negativism about Pakistan in India than there is in Pakistan about India. They make the point that Kashmir was not an issue in the last elections and that Nawaz Sharif genuinely wants good ties with India. If so, why this denunciation of Nawaz Sharif and the Ufa release because Kashmir was not specially mentioned ? Assuming that Nawaz Sharif wanted to de-block the relationship by agreeing to focus on terrorism and restoration of cease-fire on the LOC as priority issues, why attack him for not insisting on a specific mention of Kashmir and having it subsumed instead under the reference to “all outstanding issues”.

Actually, the release was evenly balanced diplomatically, no matter what Pakistani critics say about Nawaz Sharif conceding major ground on Kashmir and our claim that we had set the terms of engagement. Critics on our side would say that we conceded major political ground by resuming high level engagement with Pakistan despite provocations on the LOC and the continuation of terrorist activity against us. The government has created the impression that like the previous government it has also delinked dialogue from terrorism, contradicting the position it had taken when in opposition and even after assuming power. The Pakistanis could view this with satisfaction as a recognition of reality even by the tough new Indian PM that India does not possess the military and diplomatic means to deal with the Pakistani strategy of using terrorism as a political weapon against us. For Pakistan this is a major gain as they will not feel any pressure to change this strategy vis a vis India. It will be business as usual for them, with predictable Indian responses. Pakistan also believes that despite a more robust government being in power, India has, as in the past, yielded to international pressure and realised that the “no-dialogue” position is unsustainable because of international expectations, especially those of the US that remains heavily involved in shaping the end game in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s assistance.

India has generously agreed in the Ufa release that ensuring peace is the “collective responsibility” of India and Pakistan when it is Pakistan alone that has constantly disturbed the peace by recourse to military aggression as well as terrorism over years. It has nurtured jihadi groups and still permits them to carry on their activities against India, calibrated to suit its purpose. At Ufa we agreed that to ensure peace and development all “outstanding issues” need to be discussed, which apart from implying India’s readiness to discuss Kashmir, as it is well understood by both sides that the phrase “all outstanding issues” principally refers to Kashmir, we have played along with Pakistan’s interpretation of this formulation to mean that as long as Kashmir remains unresolved there cannot be peace. In other words, Pakistan will continue to disturb peace till India makes some concession to it on Kashmir.

The formulation on terrorism is also generous towards Pakistan, as we, as victims of Pakistan’s terror, have not sought to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour as the perpetrator of terrorism. The Ufa statement goes on to say that “both leaders condemned terrorism in all its forms”. We obtain no gain in joining hands with Pakistan in condemning terrorism as it only allows the latter to drum up its anti-terrorism credentials. True, Pakistan would genuinely condemn domestic terrorism, but it would be wrong for us to construe this formulation to mean that we have got them to indirectly condemn terrorism directed at us. The phrase “all its forms” is no gain for us either, as for Pakistan this means India’s “state terrorism” in Kashmir, just as the Arabs use this formulation to cover Israel’s suppression of the rights of Palestinians through the use of state force. That both sides agreed to “cooperate with each other to eliminate this menace from South Asia” is window-dressing that gives presents Pakistan as a sincere combatant against terrorism in our region, when the opposite is the case. We should keep in mind that Pakistan, despite sheltering Osama bin Laden, inflicting casualties on US/NATO soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan through its support for the Taliban extremists, including the Haqqani group, continues to obtain military and economic aid from the US. It has succeeded in managing the US to its advantage even when it has duped it. Pakistan no doubt believes handling India by its double-speak, janus-faced policies is much easier by comparison.

The reference in the Ufa release to both sides discussing ways and means to expedite the Mumbai trial, including additional information like providing voice samples, is a bit on eye-wash. The Mumbai terrorist attacks occurred 7 years ago and Pakistan has not moved forward on the trial seriously despite persistent demands from India and pro forma urging from the US, both of which it has learned to materially ignore at no cost. India resumed talks with Pakistan a few months after the Mumbai attacks, was a form of political forgiveness. It signalled to Pakistan that some atonement for this terrible terrorist act was not a pre-condition for re-engaging that country. One more joint statement with India about expediting the trial merely gives it a talking point that it is co-operating with India on the matter. The clause “additional information including voice samples” is a compromise with Pakistan that claims we have not shared enough evidence and our demand for voice samples, which Pakistan will not give by resorting to legal technicalities.

It is too late to ask the question whether, in view of recent terrorist attacks in Punjab and Jammu and the defiant rhetoric of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy and National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz, we should proceed with the NSA level dialogue. The date has already been settled. Aziz had made it known that he had proposed an agenda to our side for agreement before he would give Pakistan’s consent to the dates proposed by us. One can assume that he has received satisfaction on this score. With the fuss in Pakistan that Kashmir was not mentioned in the Ufa statement, Aziz has to say on return that Kashmir was discussed in his meeting with the NSA. He has also claimed that India had agreed at Ufa to activating a back channel dialogue with Pakistan, something that India denies.

We have had numerous unproductive dialogues with Pakistan already. The forthcoming dialogue will fare no better, especially when Pakistan feels it has improved its diplomatic position in Afghanistan, with the new Afghan president keen to mend fences with it and, as a corollary, has put some distance between himself and India. US and China are banking on Pakistan to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan and are willing to reward it by giving its proxies a share of the political power there. China, in addition, in disregard of Indian sensitivities, is ready to enormously step up its economic, military and political investment in Pakistan, with Russia too seeking openings in the country. It would not be surprising if our dialogue overtures to Pakistan are seen by it as a sign of our weakness and a recognition that we lack other options. We should develop other options first, demonstrate that we have them and then be open to a dialogue with Pakistan.

Published Date: 18th August 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Naga Accord: Challenges Remain

Prakash Singh 
(Member, VIF Advisory Board)

“Today, we mark not merely the end of a problem, but the beginning of a new future.” Thus spake the Prime Minister on August 3, after the Naga Peace Accord was signed in New Delhi. The terms of agreement were not released – only the framework was outlined. According to Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home, it may take about three months to finalize the exact terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, according to sources, the accord seeks a “lasting solution” to the Naga problem.

It is worth recalling that a suspension of operations agreement was signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah group) as far back as 1997. About eighty rounds of talks were held during the intervening period at different places which included Bangkok, Paris, Zurich and Geneva. There were prolonged negotiations because the Naga rebel leaders insisted on recognition of their sovereignty and demanded integration of the contiguous Naga-inhabited areas of the adjoining states into what they called Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). The Government of India could not agree to the concept of Naga sovereignty as different from sovereignty of Indian people, and it was not prepared to redraw the geographical boundaries because of the intense opposition by the neighbouring states, particularly Manipur. And so, the talks went on and on. Some of our interlocutors, like Padmanabhaiah, also never showed any sense of urgency with the result that the talks meandered. R.N Ravi, a thorough professional, insisted on and managed to clinch the issue. The agreement is no doubt historic, but we have to keep our fingers crossed until such time as the details are worked out and those are also endorsed by both the sides.

We have to remember that there have already been three agreements with the Nagas during the last about sixty years that the insurgency has been going on. The first Naga People’s Convention held in 1957 demanded that the Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang Frontier division of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) be merged into a single unit. The demanded was conceded and Naga Hills Tuensang Area (NHTA) was formed the same year. The third Nagas People’s convention held in 1959, demanded the creation of a new state of Nagaland. This was also conceded, and the state of Nagaland was carved out on December 1, 1963. Peace, however, continued to elude the Hills.

There was yet another agreement in 1975 – the Shilong Accord. The representatives of Naga underground organizations conveyed their decision “of their own volition, to accept, without condition, the Constitution of India.” The underground leaders also agreed to deposit their weapons at “appointed places”. Another group of Naga leaders, which included Issac, Muivah and Khaplang, however refused to abide by the agreement and they formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980, which has since been spearheading insurgency in the state.

The Accord signed on August 3, 2015 would be the fourth agreement in the series. Will it work? It should, by all the available indications. Government has shown extraordinary sensitivity to Naga sentiments. “The Government of India recognized the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations.” The NSCN leaders have also shown great sagacity by not making an issue of adjoining Naga-inhabited areas being integrated with Nagaland. “The NSCN understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance.”

There are nevertheless grey areas which would have to be taken care of. Firstly, Khaplang group of the NSCN is not part of the agreement and it is quite formidable. Its attitude would need to be watched. Secondly, there are other groups also who may have reservations. Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga of Manipur, and not all Nagas of Nagaland like him for that reason. Discordant voices are already being heard. Naga National Council has come out with a statement saying, “Nagas are not Indians and Nagaland is not part of India”. The NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) has also said that it has “nothing to do with the Naga peace accord”. Government would have to address their concerns.

The permanence of the agreement would depend to a very large extent on the Naga rebels surrendering their weapons. The two sides have agreed to set up a mechanism for decommissioning of arms. However, if that does not happen or if that happens very partially, the future would remain uncertain. Presently, the NSCN (IM) is running virtually a parallel government, collecting taxes, recruiting people, and issuing ahzas (orders) on various matters. They will have to stop all these illegal activities and join the democratic mainstream.

Muivah struck a note of cautious optimism. He promised that the Nagas would honour the accord, but went on to add that “challenges still remain”. These challenges or the hard realities would have to be faced. The Nagas will have to understand that their sovereignty is part of the broader Indian sovereignty and that in the kind of plural society that we have, people of diverse ethnic groups live not only in certain compact areas but also in areas having majority with a different background. As Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, then President of India, said while inaugurating the state of Nagaland, “Indian society has always been a multi-lingual, multi-racial and multi-religious one having a variety of racial ethnic groups” and that these groups, though diverse in origin, were united by a common purpose.

(The writer, a retired Police Chief, served in Nagaland for four years and has authored a book, Kohima to Kashmir)

Published Date: 13th August 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Understanding the Chinese One-Belt-One-Road

A glance at the history of the last few centuries, since at least the seventeenth, indicates that the opening decades of all centuries are times of upheaval. New forces frequently emerge, new ideologies, or technologies. These take time to play themselves out. Without being deterministic about such historical cycles, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that we are witnessing one more turn, and that it will be a while before stability will return.​

Click here to read full Paper

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mullah Omar’s Death Casts Dark Clouds over Afghanistan’s Pakistan-Led, Pakistan-Owned Peace Process

Sushant Sareen, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

The resistance by powerful Afghan Taliban leaders and field commanders to the nomination of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as successor of Mullah Mohammad Omar and his elevation as the new Emir of the Taliban movement has, for now at least, spoiled the elaborate end-game that the Pakistanis had planned in Afghanistan. The talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government have been put on hold and there is no clarity if they will re-start anytime soon, if at all. And even if they do re-start, there are doubts whether these talks will be able to deliver anything close to peace.

One big reason for that is that a large section of Afghan Taliban don’t trust the Pakistanis who have been trying to broker or, if you will, ‘facilitate’, the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. They fear that the Pakistanis will leave them out in the cold. This, despite the fact that Pakistan has given support and sanctuary to the Taliban in their fight against the American-led foreign forces which were backing the Afghan government since November 2001. What the Taliban really think of the Pakistanis was summed up by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador in Islamabad who was unceremoniously and against all diplomatic norms arrested and handed over to the Americans after 9/11. In his autobiography, Mullah Zaeef writes: “Pakistan…is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everyone’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody. They deceive the Arabs under the guise of Islamic nuclear power, saying they are defending Islam and Islamic countries. They milk America and Europe in the alliance against terrorism, and they have been deceiving Pakistani and other Muslims around the world in the name of the Kashmir Jihad. But behind the curtains they have been betraying everyone.”

Until the ‘premature’ announcement that Mullah Omar had died over two years ago in 2013 – it is not even clear if he was alive till then because for many years now there was no real proof of life about him – it seemed that the Pakistani-owned, Pakistani-led peace process which donned an Afghan mask was going according to plan. Come to think of it, Mullah Omar had to die and be replaced by a pliable Pakistani lackey for the Pakistani end-game plan to succeed, and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is just that person. If the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death – a closely guarded secret for at least two years now – had not been made at this rather inopportune (not just for the successor but also his masters in ISI HQs) time, it would have been made after a couple of months when the deal that the Pakistanis were brokering had been stitched together.

The bottom-line is Mullah Omar had lost his relevance for Pakistan. Given Mullah Omar’s stature and position, not just among the Afghan Taliban but also in the larger Jihadist pantheon, there was practically no possibility of any compromise formula, much less any peace deal, as long as he was alive. After all, how could an Emir-ul-Momineen agree to an elected (and one uses the word advisedly given the manner in which Ashraf Ghani was ‘elected’) President and head of state. What is more, even if Mullah Omar had been alive and had rooted in favour of a negotiated settlement – the grapevine is that he remained implacably opposed to talks with the Afghan government – chances are that his more radical and hard line followers would have repudiated him and rebelled against him. Ironically enough, if, as is being suspected and even alleged, that Mullah Omar was bumped off by Mansoor and rest of his Pakistani-inspired and Pakistani controlled coterie, then it seems that the Emir-ul-Momineen had outlived his usefulness for both the hardliners as well as those who were ready to a negotiated deal.

The premature release of the news of Mullah Omar’s death is clearly part of the power struggle in the Taliban and the growing disquiet among the fighters over the so-called peace process. Assuming that Omar died in 2013, the fact that those opposed to peace talks did not insist on proof of life for all this time was because there was really no change on the ground in terms of strategy. The Pakistani policy during this period was two-pronged: keep speaking in favour of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process and at the same time keep encouraging the Taliban fighters to continue, and even intensify, their attacks inside Afghanistan. This suited the hardliners, more so because the various track-II dialogues around the world – in some of them the so-called Taliban representatives with Pakistani Afghan agents – didn’t seem to be going anywhere anyway. In other words, keeping Mullah Omar ‘alive’, as it were, suited the hardliners and also those who were ready to toe the Pakistani line and explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

But the Murree talks, followed by the so-called Eid message which, as it now turns out, was issued by Mullah Omar from his grave, set alarm bells ringing. The first indication of something not being right came some months back when a Pakistani Taliban group denounced the Afghan Taliban as Pakistani agents and broke their ties with them. The bee-line that some Taliban groups made for joining the Islamic State also suggested that all was not well. The impression got strengthened when the Taliban, out of the blue, issued a bio-data of Mullah Omar in April. After the Murree talks, a breakaway Taliban group, Fidayee Mahaz, first revealed that Mullah Omar had been killed by Masoor and his sidekicks. Intimations of Mullah Omar’s death had been doing the rounds for some time. Questions had been raised even last year over whether he was even alive. But these were invariably brushed under the proverbial carpet. This time, however, many Taliban leaders demanded proof of life especially since they smelled a rat after Mullah Omar supposedly endorsed the Murree peace talks.

In a sense, the Pakistani hand was forced by its own double-game of reaching out to the new Afghan government even as it gave a free hand to the Taliban to ratchet up the pressure through attacks inside Afghanistan. The growing resentment inside Afghanistan over the attacks put pressure on Ashraf Ghani to demand that Pakistan keep its side of the bargain, which was to ‘facilitate’ direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Pakistanis organised the Murree talks but soon doubts were raised whether these had the nod of the Taliban leadership. Even earlier, questions were raised about the so-called Taliban representatives who went for track-II meetings and who were seen more as ISI representatives rather than Taliban representatives. Pakistan was therefore forced to issue a statement in Mullah Omar’s name. Since the dead Emir-ul-Momineen often used to issue messages on the occasion of Eid, it seemed appropriate to have him issue another message, even if this one was from his grave.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, the message seemed as though it was drafted in Aabpara (ISI HQ) – its basic message had striking resemblance to the speech made by Musharraf justifying his U-turn after 9/11. The hardliners were spooked by the message and their distrust of Pakistan and their fear that Pakistan will once again double-deal and leave them in the cold appeared to come true. The Pakistanis themselves had declared in official statements that the peace talks would isolate the hotheads among the Taliban, who could then be dealt with separately. Reports that Pakistan was ready to act as a guarantor for the Afghan government giving the Taliban a share in the power in Kabul only confirmed the apprehensions that Pakistan was all set to leave the recalcitrant fighters out in the cold.

While on paper isolating the militants sounded like a good strategy, the problem was that unless the people fighting on the ground were brought in, peace in Afghanistan would remain illusory. The Pakistanis figured that they would be able to rein in the Taliban holdouts using the firepower of the ‘veritable arm of the ISI’ i.e. Haqqani Network which had been kept in reserve to tilt the battlefield Pakistan's way. No surprise then that as soon as Mansoor was declared Emir, he appointed the Haqqani Network’s de facto chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, as his deputy and head of the military council. In a sense then the Mansoor Taliban is really an extension of the Haqqani Network (which is going to be the power behind the throne) which in turn is an instrument of the ISI. And if all goes well, with Ashraf Ghani ready to dance to Pakistani tunes and with Haqqani Network becoming part of the Afghan government, Pakistan is all set to see the fruition of its strategic policy.

The leaking out of Mullah Omar’s death has however put a spanner in the works of the “Pakistan-owned, Pakistan-led” peace process. The whole situation is now in a flux. There are broadly four possible outcomes:
  1. The Pakistanis manage to ensure Mansoor’s survival. The hardliners either fall in line or are eliminated through joint action of the Afghan National Army and the Mansoor Taliban. Already there are reports of some of the big commanders who were earlier opposing Mansoor, falling in line. Others are reported to have been arrested and put away. There are also rumours that the man who could become the lightening rod for the anti-Mansoor Taliban, Mullah Omar’s son Yakub, has been killed and Omar’s family taken away to some unknown place – remarkable resemblance to the treatment meted out to the family of Prophet Mohammad! Once opposition is eliminated, the Pakistani strategy of cobbling together a peace deal which gives the Taliban a big share in the power structure in Kabul will be put in place. The anti-Taliban Afghans will make some noise and show some resistance, but they will either be bought over or bludgeoned into accepting the new reality.
  2. All the shenanigans to project Mansoor as the leader come a cropper and the resistance to Mansoor mounts. If things start going out of control, Pakistan could sacrifice Mansoor and let the Haqqani’s throw their weight behind the hard line faction and then try to regain its influence over the new leadership. This would mean that the current peace process will become history and Afghanistan will undergo a fresh paroxysm of violence.
  3. The division between the pro and anti-Pakistan Taliban is not bridged and there is a new realignment of forces. The anti-Pakistan, anti-Ashraf-Ghani forces in Afghanistan make common cause with the anti-Pakistan, anti-Afghan government and anti-Mansoor Taliban and fight the Pakistani proxies. This is a bit of a long shot but stranger things are known to have happened in Afghanistan where loyalties are fungible and all alliances and enmities temporary and transient. But this scenario again means a civil war in Afghanistan, fuelled by countries which back one or the other group.
  4. The last scenario is a sort of multi-pronged civil war in which the protagonists are the Afghan government and perhaps the Mansoor Taliban backed by Pakistan on one side, the anti-Ashraf Ghani and anti-Taliban Afghans holding a second front, and the anti-Afghan government, anti-Pakistan, and anti-Mansoor Taliban forming a third front. In this there is also the possibility of a new actor coming into play – the Islamic State. Needless to say, this is the worst nightmare for all players in Afghanistan.
By all accounts then, a dead Mullah Omar is just as bad news as a living Mullah Omar and the future of Afghanistan is very delicately poised. The biggest problem, and the biggest mistake, is that there is never an end-game in Afghanistan. Whenever countries and players prepare for an endgame, they only end up planting the seeds of a new Great Game. Post Mullah Omar, the old end-game is all but over and the new Great Game is starting to unfold.

Published Date: 5th August 2015, Image Source:\
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Nagaland: Reasons to be Optimistic

Nitin A Gokhale, 
Editor & Senior Fellow, VIF

Late on Monday evening, the question uppermost in the mind of every observer who watches the north-east closely was: Will the Naga accord usher in permanent peace in the region, wracked by conflict for decades?

More than 12 hours after the pact was signed between the Government of India and the Issac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM)—arguably the most influential underground outfit in the region in the past quarter century—the details are as yet to emerge. What is however apparent is that both sides have met each other half way to pave way for what is likely to be a major breakthrough in the chequered history of insurgency in India’s north east.

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. For one, the most contentious issue of creating a ‘Greater Nagaland’ by integrating all Naga-inhabited areas in the region and by consequence redrawing the boundaries of existing states, is off the table. Sources privy to the details of negotiations indicate that the NSCN (IM) has dropped the demand for territorial integration of the Naga areas spread over Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh—all adjacent states of Nagaland—and has instead settled for ‘cultural’ integration of the Nagas. This will go a long way in allaying fears in neighbouring states about losing territory. Manipur, in particular, has reacted violently to such a suggestion. In the past.

Secondly, the Government of India has acknowledged the ‘unique’ status of the Nagas. It has been an article of faith for generations of Naga leaders to be treated as unique. As a government press note said, in the wake of the signing of the accord between NSCN(IM) leader T. Muivah and GoI interlocutor Ravindra Narayan Ravi: “This agreement will end the oldest insurgency in the country. It will restore peace and pave the way for prosperity in the North East. It will advance a life of dignity, opportunity and equity for the Naga people, based on their genius and consistent with the uniqueness of the Naga people and their culture and traditions.”

RN Ravi, a former Intelligence Bureau officer with decades of experience in the region, also managed to persuade the Naga leaders about climbing down from their demand for ‘sovereignty.’ So in return for accepting the Naga uniqueness, the Nagas have agreed to work within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. As the government press note said: “The NSCN understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance.”

While the Government of India has accepted the ‘uniqueness’ of the Nagas, the Naga leaders have also dropped their demand for sovereignty. A government release in the wake of the signing acknowledged as much when it said: “The sustained dialogue between the two sides, conducted in a spirit of equality, respect and trust, deepened their mutual understanding and confidence, and enabled the two sides to reach an equitable agreement. The Government of India recognized the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations. The NSCN understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance.”

"Today's agreement is a shining example of what we can achieve when we deal with each other in a spirit of equality and respect, trust and confidence; when we seek to understand concerns and try to address aspirations; when we leave the path of dispute and take the high road of dialogue," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after the accord was signed.

VS Atem, a senior NSCN leader told the Nagaland Post that the NSCN (I-M) has made a “historic agreement” of reconciliation and unity on the basis of political and historical right of the Nagas. He maintained that both Shillong Accord of 1975 and the 16 point agreement of 1960 were not made on the basis of political and historical right of the Nagas.

Although much of the details of the agreement still remain hazy, one understands that both sides have agreed not to disturb the territorial boundaries of the existing states in the region. This should come as a major relief for Manipur which has always feared the dismemberment of the state since the Nagas dominate a major area in the hills of Manipur and had in the past demanded integration of those Naga-inhabited areas into “Greater Nagaland.” However cultural integration of the Nagas spread all over the north-east may be worked out by granting special constitutional protection to them.

The pact, coming as it does on the back of an 18-year long ceasefire between NSCN(IM) and the Government of India—and at least 80 rounds of talks—is likely to serve as a foundation for sustained peace in the north-east since the Naga insurgency was seen to be the ‘mother of all insurgencies’ in the region. Once the armed cadres of the NSCN(IM) are integrated with the rest of the society in coming months and the designated camps maintained by the outfit are disbanded, the sustenance it provide to other insurgencies will automatically dissipate.

Once the NSCN(IM) disarms its cadres and some of its leaders join hands with some cultural and political organisations to morph into a political party (a likelihood in medium term), other insurgent groups in the north-east who were dependent on the outfit for sustenance, are also likely to do a rethink on the violent path they currently pursue. Although NSCN(IM)’s rival faction, the Khaplang group, headed by a Burmese Naga, SS Khaplang, is likely to react violently, the government is confident of neutralising the group because of its lack of influence in large parts of Naga areas.

The agreement also marks a major triumph for Issac Chisi Swu and T. Muivah, two senior most leaders of the Naga underground movement apart from SS Khaplang, their former comrade-in-arms-turned-bitter-foe. Both have been insurgents since the mid-1960s and even trekked to China to obtain arms in that decade. But in 1997, both took a great risk in agreeing to a ceasefire with the government. For 18 long years, the negotiations traversed a torturous path—teetering on the brink of collapse a number of times—through at least five different regimes at the Centre.

Once the terms of the accord are clear and peace gets embedded in Nagaland, the ripple effects of the agreement is likely to spread to the other parts of the north-east enabling the Centre to implement its ‘Act East’ policy with greater purpose and vigour.

Monday’s agreement has the potential to end a five-decade long conflict that has kept the north-east perpetually on the boil. But for that both the government and the Naga leadership will have to show the same wisdom and sagacity they have displayed in clinching the accord. For, there will be many attempts to derail the hard-won peace in coming months. Therein lies the biggest challenge to the main protagonists of this breakthrough pact.

Published Date: 4th August 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Islamic State and Southeast Asia

The tentacles of the Islamic State (IS) have reached Southeast Asia and the region is increasingly becoming a recruiting hub for the outfit. This is an alarming development as a few of these countries, long considered to be moderate Muslim states, have started witnessing its citizens supporting or joining this outfit. The impact which the returning radicals would have on a particular country, prevention of radicalisation of citizens, containment of recruitment process, and implementation of effective counter-measures are some of the challenges which are being faced by different governments in the region.

Recent Developments

Since mid-2014, many young men have reportedly travelled from Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, to join the jihad in West Asia. This has serious implications for the governments and security establishments. It is estimated that more than 500 Indonesians travelled to Iraq and Syria (although the exact number joining IS is not yet clear), and approximately 40 to 70 Malaysians and 200 Filipinos have joined the IS.

Many of the radicalised Muslims from the region adhered to the ideology of IS as they feel an affinity for the outfit on theological lines. These people view parallels between the mission of the IS and the “prophecies in Islamic holy texts” regarding the creation of the caliphate. Another important factor responsible for the penetration of IS into the region is the growing sectarianism amongst Shias and Sunnis. Malaysia is a good case where the spread of Shia ideology is forbidden, and the government is increasingly becoming anti-Shiite. The ongoing unrest in Syria is also attributed to the rising support for the terror group in Southeast Asia. In other words, the recruitment into IS cannot be isolated from the “context of humanitarian crisis in Syria”.

The involvement of Indonesians with the IS is mainly due to the outfit’s appeal for the creation of an Islamic state. The commonality in their objective has become an incentive for the home-grown terror organisations to pledge support for IS. Aceh, a Muslim-majority area, which is also a special region of Indonesia, is becoming a haven for Sunni extremists as thousands of them, including former militants from the Free Aceh Movement, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year. As this province abides by Sharia law, strict regulations are imposed even in educational establishments and public places. Thus it has become a fertile area for growth of extreme radicalisation.

In Malaysia, the domestic politics of political party such as United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is heading the coalition government, gives rise to serious resentment in the country. The issue of sectarianism is growing at an alarming pace, whereby, many of the religious and political hardliners are antagonistic towards minorities, particularly, the Shia brand of Islam. The ongoing conflict in Syria has further exacerbated the hatred for the Shias. The strengthening of anti-Shiite rhetoric is increasingly providing important “religious justifications” for several radicalised youths to travel to Syria and Iran and join the IS. The extreme politicisation of Islam inside Malaysia is fuelling radicalism in the country.

Recruitment and the Concerns

The IS deploys its online recruitment tactics by using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Many techno-savvy fighters, with the use of the modern technology, reach out to various sections in the society. In Philippines, recruitment is said to have taken place even in universities and schools. This indicates the involvement of local institutions in indoctrinating young people. As explained by one commentator:
“Communication technologies give IS recruiters a messaging platform across the region and low cost travel is making transport to the Middle East far easier than it was in the 1980s. This is increasing the number of fighters stemming from the region as well as broadening the range of countries they are coming from.”
Further, brutalities of IS right from its inception has attracted different terror groups. Its public executions through stoning, beheading, etc. have enhanced its image as a resolute outfit unlike many of its contemporaries. Its sustainability, despite various ongoing military campaigns to trample its might, has increased its credibility as an organisation that is committed to its cause of establishing a state to be governed by Shariah laws. Further, limited knowledge of English and Arabic languages in most of these countries has remained another crucial factor for building communication links both within the region as well as with those in the war-torn countries. Reportedly, in September 2014, militants from Malaysia and Indonesia speaking a common language, Malay, formed a 22-member group called Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah (Malay archipelago unit for the Islamic State) in Al-Shadadi, Syria. The primary motive of this combat unit is to help IS in furthering its goal, and it is this ideology that binds the fighters. Their combat tasks are made easy with the help of this common language. The group’s fighting capability was acknowledged in early April this year when it captured a few Kurd-held territories inside Syria. This unit is known to have provided assistance to those families whose members are fighting in Iraq and Syria, and it is playing an important role in recruiting and propagating terror ideology.

The supporters inside a particular country, in turn, translate the message of the IS into various vernaculars. This is where a wide range of social networking sites have come into play. For instance, a pilot named Ridwan Agustin from AirAsia (who is believed to be in Raqqa in Syria), and another pilot, Tommy Hendratno, who worked for a charter flight company, both from Indonesia, reportedly promoted the ideology of IS using social media, and were believed to be in contact with various other sympathisers of the outfit. Both of them used their Facebook accounts “posting regularly about the group’s claims of success and winning likes from other accounts that appeared to belong to pilots”. Many of the foreign recruits in the IS are well-educated, former military personnel, and with technological background. These traits are found in those who travelled from the region, particularly, the Malaysians. The flights of these people were made easy by the availability of low-cost travel arrangements, and they entered the battle zones through Turkey, while Indonesia, Brunei and Philippines are the popular points of departure.

It is not merely their departure that caused considerable alarm but their active participation in jihad raised huge concerns in the region. Malaysia has already witnessed its first suicide bomber in 26-year-old Ahmad Tarmini who blew up 25 Iraqi soldiers at Iraq’s SWAT headquarters in al- Anbar on 26 May 2014, followed by that of Ahmad Affendi Abdull Manaff (27), who killed about 50 soldiers of the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, by storming a bomb-laden truck into military installations in Homs, Syria, in late 2014. Most of the suicide bombers for IS, so far, have been foreign recruits. Between mid-2014 and in May 2015, 26 Malaysian-origin IS fighters were reportedly killed in Syria.
An equally worrying development is the allegiance pledged by home-grown terror outfits such Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Philippines and, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) in Indonesia. One of the earliest calls to support the IS was made by the jailed spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Abu Bakar Bashir in July 2014, and in August, he pledged allegiance to IS. The support offered by these organisations and other independent splinter groups, particularly, in Indonesia, comes in conjunction with their objectives to establish similar Islamic state inside the country. They also have been successful in recruiting local fighters to trigger sectarian conflicts in the region. There are about 22 to 30 terror organisations in Southeast Asia that have pledged to support the IS.

Currently, the possibility of returnees bringing terror back to their respective countries is a major concern. While it is debatable that not every returnee will conduct jihad, most of them have already gained combat experience, skills, indoctrinated themselves with extreme ideologies, and gained knowledge for weapons; as a result, even a few could pose a threat. This is particularly worrisome due to the presence of various terror organisations upon which these returnees can impart their first-hand experience or provide leadership for the extremist movements. Therefore, one should not rule out any nexus between them and, such amalgamation of returnees, local groups and “self-radicalised or lone-wolves” can be quite destructive.

Steps Taken

The Southeast Asian countries have been quick in realising the threats posed by their citizens who are absorbed by the IS. Several countermeasures have now been taken to keep a track of people’s movements towards West Asia. Many who aspired to join the outfit have been arrested. While a few of them (particularly, Indonesians) were arrested before they could flee to Syria, there were others who were detained for plotting terror attacks, mainly, inside Singapore and Malaysia. In what could be considered as effectiveness of the system, law enforcement authorities could nab those civilian recruiters who tried to send people, including children and women to Iraq and Syria. Preventing such involvement of local populace in funding and recruiting for the IS, however, is proving to be a major challenge. This is because security officials need to be extremely careful while handling these issues as any aggressive step carries high risk of further fuelling radical sentiments in a very volatile society, and could trigger severe backlash.

Indonesia has taken some firm steps to crack down on its citizens who have tried to join IS. Its state anti-terror squad, Detachment 88, is doing up a commendable job in this regard. There is a close coordination between this team and the police. Their combined effort in fact led to the arrest of a top leader of JAT, who intended to join IS, in August 2014. These establishments are entrusted with the task of preventing the development of IS ideology in their jurisdictions. In December 2014, one of the country’s military commanders expressed his desire to enhance cooperation with the U.S. to counter the rise of radical groups in Southeast Asia. President Joko Widodo, in January 2015, agreed to “issue a regulation allowing the authorities to revoke the passports” of those who support the IS. The condemnations by the mainstream Muslim organisations towards IS is, indeed, an important counter-narrative, and they are supportive of their government’s action. Organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah vehemently oppose IS and considered the latter’s teachings and conducts as “antithetical” to tenets of Islam and to Pancasila, the ideology behind the foundation of Indonesia which “endorses no particular religion” but promote the principles of monotheism, humanism, unity, democracy and social justice.

Similarly, Malaysia and Singapore are taking a few steps to prevent young people from joining IS. Kuala Lumpur has initiated a holistic approach to combat extremism. Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim) set up a committee called Jihad Concept Explanation Action Committee, just to check the spread of terror ideology by IS supporters or sympathisers in schools, universities and on the internet. The committee is constituted by representatives from the Home Ministry's Malaysian Civil Defence Department, the Prime Minister Department's National Security Council, Royal Malaysia Police, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim), Al-Hijrah Media Corp and Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (Iksim). This came up after investigators discovered that recruitment of young people was often happening through misleading teachings on jihad or holy war, by lecturers. Various programmes on religious preaching in mosques and prayers halls are believed to be underway. These efforts will be more effective if the government’s domestic policies are inclusive, cutting across sectarian divisions. Likewise, Singapore is also cognisant of the threats posed by radicalised citizens. It went a step ahead by agreeing to provide military support, such as KC-135R Stratotanker for air-to-air refuelling and imagery analysis team, to the U.S.-led air coalition in Iraq. Without involving in combat operations, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is coordinating with the U.S. Central Command and the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters. This tiny nation has exhibited seriousness about IS as it does not want to disrupt the harmony that exists between different communities, and for it being a major financial hub in the region. The East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Integration- a counterterrorism meeting- kick-started by this country, with the primary motive to share its “best practices” with like-minded states, is a significant step. And, “tackling and understanding the religious and social aspects of the problem” related to terrorism has been given heightened importance.


The penetration of IS influence in this region, which is posing a serious security threat, must not be underestimated. A lackadaisical approach towards this problem will only fuel more extremism as there are a large number of radical Islamic groups that are getting inspired by the IS. In the wake of this, a regional cooperation on intelligence sharing should be promoted, and this can also be done by roping in countries such as India, Thailand and Australia which have equal concerns towards terrorism. De-radicalisation efforts that have begun in Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines should be promoted. Further, the need of the hour is to have a strong political will and an effective leadership in every country in order to promote a pluralistic society. This will require an establishment of a healthy relationship between political, security civil society groups and religious establishments. Tellingly, politicisation of Islam in the region should be put to an end. A failure to act upon this will only keep the flame of religious extremism burning, and this will give further leeway to IS to penetrate further into the region.

Published Date: 3rd August 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sri Lanka General Elections - Curtain Raiser

This is in continuations with series of previous articles where the political situation in Sri Lanka was assessed. Now the crunch time as it were has arrived for the political leaders and parties to not only test their own respective strengths on the ground but also for President Sirisena to determine if the people of Sri Lanka are willing to give him the mandate to carry on the with the reform processes he had promised to during his presidential election campaign earlier this year. More specifically, will he get the mandate to usher in clean, transparent, honest and accountable governance in the country?

The fifteenth Sri Lankan Parliamentary Elections are set to be held on August 17 to elect 225 Members to Parliament. More than sixty political parties and over 100 independent formations will enter into the fray for the 196 directly elected seats and 29 indirectly elected through the National List. Following the announcement of election schedule; political activities, alignments and realignment are gearing up the pace. Unlike the past elections, the August 17 elections are taking place against a backdrop of highly complex political setting ensuing from emergence of new alliances as a direct upshot of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) plans to chart out his possible political resurgence, almost relegating every other issue inconsequential. It is clear that this election could well turn out to be an ‘issue vs. personality/personal ambition’ contest that could throw up some dramatic results. That might necessitate a post-election reappraisal of all existing and potential alliances and combinations.

Current Political Scenario

After a long play out of the ‘will he or will he not’ game, President Sirisena grudgingly agreed to nominate MR to contest as a candidate under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) banner. This was mainly to avoid a fast approaching split in the party engineered by MR loyalists. This decision has caused a degree of disenchantment among some of Sirisena’s political allies who had backed him during the presidential campaign to keep the MR and his coterie away from the corridors of power for all their misdeeds. Some members of Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP, the principle constituent of UPFA, headed by Sirisena) have already broken ranks calling it ‘political betrayal’. Such SLFP defectors will now be contesting on arch rival UNP’s ticket. Even the de-facto supremo of SLPF and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, annoyed with this move, has already left the country, citing family engagements. She is unlikely to return to Sri Lanka before the elections which are only three weeks away. However, of the allies, the Ceylon Worker’s Congress (CWC) and Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) have continued their allegiance under UPFA.

Taking advantage of the rift within the UPFA, United National Party (UNP) has cobbled together the ‘United National Good-Governance Front’ (UNGGF) that includes Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is backed by United Left Front (ULF), members of SLFP breakaway faction, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA).

With these realignments, the traditional SLFP and UNP rivalry has transformed into UPFA and UNGGF. As the campaign fever picks up, both the alliances are extremely confident about securing a landslide victory. Further, the demarcation between the two camps has become clearer and in net terms, boils down to a contest between boil down to pro MR and anti MR forces.

Factors playing critical role in election

Sinhala votes: Sinhalese comprise 74 percent of total population. Approximately 55 percent of them had cast their votes in favour of MR and not Sirisena in the 2015 presidential election. Voting percentage of Sinhala segment of the electorate may rise due to following additional considerations:
  • Right wing groups campaign that in its zeal to appease the minorities, the Sirisena establishment had relegated interests of the majority Buddhist community to a secondary position;
  • Sirisena govt’s. Foreign policy is perceived as getting overly aligned with western interests, construed as promoting Western agenda at the cost of Lankan national interests. This has not gone well with many nationalistic Sinhalas. It needs to be mentioned here that in Sri Lanka, the term ‘West’ often includes India or India finds its mention alongside the Western powers.
  • The possibility revitalization of LTTE in other parts of the world, attested by recently released US Department of State report 2014 is causing some concern in the minds of the Sinhala community, many of who see MR as the saviour of nation. This induced insecurity in the environment is further fueled by perceived Islamic radicalization in the country, after recently confirmed death of a Sri Lankan ISIS fighter in Syria.
These factors will play a crucial role in mobilizing Sinhala votes. According to the latest data of Social Scientists Association survey (Sri Lanka Political Weather Analysis: June 2015) only 33% of Sinhalese feel that the interests of their community are more ensured now compared to a year ago. The implication of this is that two third of this community is not happy with Sirisena’s policies. The chances of this lot aligning its aspirations with MR’s political comeback are huge. UPFA too has taken note of this and is trying hard to sway Sinhala voters as against the ethnic minorities. This is evident from the fact that there is no Tamil candidate and only one Muslim in the UPFA list of candidates. Majority of Muslim and Tamil voters could thus be expected to go with UNP led UNFGG.

Minorities: They constitute 26 per cent of the Lankan population. Majority of the political parties representing their interest had backed Sirisena during the Presidential election. According to the findings of above mentioned survey, 83% Tamils, 87% Muslims and 83% up country Tamil have expressed satisfaction with performance of present government with regards to development. Similarly, a large number of minority ethnic communities (Tamil 82%, Muslim 68%, up Country Tamil 72%) stated that the political environment today allows them more freedom, compared to a year ago. This, coupled with endorsement of UNP led UNFGG by TNA and SLMC is proof enough that an overwhelming number of minority votes may not go with MR or his supporters in the ruling alliance.

Buddhist Monks: They have traditionally exerted some influence in forming political opinion. Ultra- hardliner Sinhala- Buddhist organization, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has for the first time decided to field its political candidate under the banner of Bodu Jana Peramuna (BJP). There are unsubstantiated reports that some Buddhist monks had arranged to sign a petition to oust the President from the leadership of the SLFP, Barring the monks of BBS, the other religious figures either support the anti-MR elements or maintain strategic distance from pro-MR forces. For example, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) led by Buddhist monks that was earlier part of the National Unity Government, has now formed UNFGG with the UNP. Currently it holds 2 seats in Parliament. In another such example, Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, often tagged as ‘Lankan Khomeini’ by Rajpakasa coterie, has openly spoken against nepotism, corruption and crony capitalism under Rajapaksa’s regime. Similarly, Malwatta Chapter Mahanayaka, Ven. Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera in his remarks made after announcement of elections date suggested that politicians should think of retiring at the correct time as politics is not a life-long profession. Here, the hint is clear. Chief Incumbent of the Rangiri-Dambulu temple Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera blamed the racial political parties for instigating racism in the country and pointed out that the political parties should be able to represent all the people from every religion and community. Thus it is clear that the venerated Buddhist figures in socio-political arena have divided opinion.

Committed followers of UNP & SLFP: In the last parliamentary elections in 2010, UPFA (with SLFP as its principal constituent) had won a staggering 144 seats, though it fell short of clinging two-third majority. UNF (with UNP as its main constituent) managed to get only 60 seats. From April 2010 to June 2015, the party position kept changing due to defections and horse trading. This makes it extremely difficult to assess the real electoral support base, including that of committed supporters. Nevertheless, the traditional staunch followers of the two main political parties are unlikely to witness significant variations.

Undecided Voters: According to a survey conducted on the voting pattern in Sri Lankan elections, two weeks prior to 2015 Presidential elections (by T L Gunaruwan and D S Jayaweera, published in Sri Lanka BRIEF on January 01, 2015), around 20% of the first time voters and nearly 13%-15% of the total respondents were undecided. This indecision is bound to rise substantially after eight months of the presidential election owing to following developments:
  • The alleged Central Bank bond scam under the present UNP led minority government and its injudicious handling, has cast serious doubts in the minds of champions of good governance about UNP’s commitment in this area. MR loyalists in SLFP have managed to seize this opportunity to castigate UNP.
  • Sirisena’s hour-long message to nation on July 14 has left the UPFA supporters confused and UNP supporters exuberant. President had announced his neutrality in the upcoming campaign, going to extent of appointment of someone other than MR as new Prime Minister in case UPFA wins the August 17 elections. He clearly doesn’t want to jeopardize SLFP’s interests being the leader of that party, but at the same time he is mindful of political debt that he owes to UNP as he could not have won the Presidential election without their support.
President’s speech has surely done some damage to UPFA as has the bond-scam allegation done to UNP. The undecided and uncommitted voters will, over the next two weeks factor these into their decision.

Political parties contesting alone: Some parties will either go alone or could still join any alliance. This includes a group of rehabilitated LTTE combatants contesting elections as ‘Independent Group’ after TNA refused to nominate them. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a political party adhering to Marxism has accommodated members from social and academic fields in its National List, which earlier consisted of only full time political workers. Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and Socialist Equality Party (SEP) are fielding 43 candidates in 3 districts. In previous General Elections, the independents like Up-Country People’s Front, Sinhalaye Mahasammatha Bhoomiputra Pakshaya, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, Tamil United Liberation Front could hardly secure any seat. However, this time around, independents can play a crucial role given the uncertainty of number of undecided voters.

‘Bring back Mahinda’ movement: MR, in his own words, ‘had to bow down to the will of masses’ by making a political comeback. It is, however, questionable if this movement was a spontaneous expression of genuine yearning of the masses or a well orchestrated component of a larger game to stage a political comeback by him. Even though a section of the population support MR’s comeback mission, the claimed ‘public outcry’ for this does not appear to have evoked ‘pan-Lankan’ proportions, being largely confined to traditional SLFP areas of influence. In this context it may be noted that more than 110 Civil Society groups have already aligned with UNFGG and some trade unions have protested against his comeback.

Voter turnout: The 2010 General Elections had witnessed lowest voter turnout in Sri Lanka (61.26 percent) since independence. This saw a dramatic reversal in the 2015 Presidential Elections with 81.52 percent voter turnout. This time around Sri Lankans voters could well shake off the vestiges of political apathy as both the major alliances are projecting this as a ‘now or never’ moment in Sri Lanka’s recent political history. The turnout is widely expected to be on much higher.

How the timing of elections benefit key political players?

The three prominent political figures would all like to believe that early elections could benefit them in the following ways:
  • Mahinda Rajapaksa: After an unexpected defeat at Presidential elections earlier this year, Rajapaksa has been campaigning and galvanizing support. An astute politician, MR knew that staying away from power for too long could cause serious erosion in his vote bank with resultant gains for Sirisena. Giving more time to Sirisena and Ranil Wickemesinghe to consolidate themselves as leaders, could severely affect Rajapaksa’s plot of political re-entry. Hence the early elections suits Rajapaksa on this count. However, he must also be conscious of the fact that a section of the population has still not forgotten nor forgiven him for his misdeeds and miss governance.
  • Ranil Wickremesinghe: Current Prime Minister and leader of UNP has a track record of losing two successive presidential elections to Chandrika Kumaratunga (1999) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005) and the parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2004. Rajapaksa’s defeat at 2015 Presidential election and the consequential political space created thereafter, provided him with a golden opportunity he would not want to let slip. For him, holding back the elections till April next year would have given sufficient time to his arch nemesis, Rajapaksa, to revive and reorganize himself. Media and Opposition have ensured that the Central Bank bond scam issue remains hovering and thus it is better for Wickremesinghe to call for fresh elections before the issue clasps its hold.
  • Maithripala Sirisensa: He personally might not be in favour of early elections as he is yet to fulfill some of his electoral pledges. Yet, elections at this juncture can augur well for President in some ways. He has received international acclamation for his efforts of reconciliation and has succeeded in curtailing numerous trends of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka. This is the opportune time to project himself as a statesman for steering reforms like scrapping down Executive Presidency. He would like to believe that the groundswell of support still runs in his favour and it was better to go for elections now than to face a possibility of erosion of his vote base due to anti-incumbency sentiments and amidst reports of rising support of grass root SLFP workers for Rajapaksa.
Possible political outcomes:
While it is always difficult to predict the outcome of any election, based upon secondary sources of information and assessed trends, any of the below mentioned three possible out comes could eventuate. These possibilities are pegged around the basic premise of MR winning his own seat from in Kurunegala which has traditionally been a UPFA bastion.
  • Outcome No.1: UNP under UNFGG sweeps majority of seats. In this scenario, Ranil Wickremesinghe will remain the Prime Minister on his own strength. There would resentment in a section of the Sinhala community. MR supporters may try to ‘en-cash’ on this by holding Sirisena responsible the defeat of the alliance and consequently, try to reclaim party leadership. MR and his supporters would disrupt the regular proceedings of Parliament and use issue of resurgence of LTTE to expose Wickremesinghe led government’s incapability to secure integrity of Sri Lanka. President will not be cornered as UNP has already acknowledged his indirect support which has evened the score. So the President and ruling coalition will somehow manage to control MR.
  • Outcome No.2: SLFP under UPFL secures majority. If the pendulum swings the other way with MR’s resounding victory, will he remain only a Member of Parliament or will his loyalists compel President to baulk down and hand over PM-ship to him? Will President even be pushed to arrive at the political compromise to keep his alliance intact? This is even more imminent given the fact that UPFA can hardly project any other leader who can be MR’s match. MR can start re-building himself which may lead to a new power clash given that nearly half of the executive powers still vest in the Presidency. His declared plan of good governance may be halted in some areas and reversed in others. There is a likelihood of re-centralization of power than devolution which may act as a potential irritant in India- Sri Lanka relations. Notwithstanding Rajapaksa’s pointed remark in his recent interview with Shri.Nitin Gokhale that ‘Sri Lanka has nothing to gain by helping any other country to become a threat to India’; India’s concerns regarding national security and regional stability will enhance.
  • Outcome No.3: None of the two major alliances secure majority and the fringe elements secure substantial seats. How the situation will evolve in this scenario is beyond comprehension at this point. Defections will be encouraged and some new alliance can appear on horizon as UNP and SLFP will resort to all manipulative tactics to retain power. All the promised plans and ideas would be adversely impacted.

In the final analysis, UPFA’s Sinhala vote share is expected to rise and if one were to go by the current trends, in all likelihood, the SLFP led alliance should emerge victorious. This is premised on the possibility expectation that the negativity surrounding MR’s re-entry would be largely neutralized by larger mobilization of Sinhala votes in favour of the SLFP. If this were not to happen, the present political imbalance in the parliament would continue. Rajapaksa’s own victory seems certain. It is however, unlikely that this could lead to his elevation to the post of Prime Minister. President Sirisena of course; in the given scheme of things, would be the final arbiter of his destiny. Regardless of the results of general elections, MR’s re-entry into the political arena will definitely affect Sirisena’s support base within the party. The impact would obviously be directly proportional to the number of SLFP seats won by MR supporters. Despite his patience and neutral stance, Sirisena will be targeted by the UNFGG for backtracking on his promise to keep MR out of UPFA. A politically weaker Sirisena will have reduced capacity to provide effective administration and continue with his declared programme on development in Sri Lanka.

Published Date: 1st August 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)