Is Pakistan meddling in Indian elections?

To understand the reason for Pulwama attack and its timing, one will have to look at the political context of India and economic crisis in Pakistan, writes Vikas Malhotra

In his first televised address after the Indian air strike at Balakot, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan while suing for peace had asked the question that India should reflect on why will we want to orchestrate the Pulwama attack. What will we gain out of it? That’s a valid question to ponder over. Was the Pulwama attack on Indian security apparatus another random terrorist strike or was it organized with some strategic outcome in mind.

To understand the reason for Pulwama attack and its timing, one will have to look at the political context of India and economic crisis in Pakistan.

Riddled with a balance of payment (BoP) crisis, Pakistan’s economy is passing through another rough period. Its current national debt stands at $92 billion ( which takes 30 per cent of its federal budget to service) squeezing the current spends. With its annual revenues at $47.5 billion and expenses at $68.2 billion its current account deficit is a staggering $20 billion.

To address its BoP crisis ( or to avoid any sovereign defaults) Pakistan is seeking a $8 billion IMF bailout package. The US, which has a veto on the IMF grants, has indicated on imposition of strong conditionalities before such a package is approved. Apart from all the fiscal corrections that it will now have to make, one of the conditions is, that Pakistan will not be able to use this money to repay its Chinese lenders (who have invested in CPEC projects).

Adding to its financial woes, the US is in the process of withdrawing its troops from the region. This will dry up another billion dollar of annual income for Pakistan, which US makes from CSF (Coalition Support Fund) for its help in the war against terror. Also, Pakistan is on grey list of FATF (Financial action task force) for terror financing and up for review. In case if it is blacklisted its access to international capital markets will also stand stymied.

Now in the throes of such economic distress all the economic choices that Pakistan faces are hard.  One will be to cut its expenditure in non key areas (even roll back some welfare schemes), second will be to substantially increase its tax revenues whose yield currently stands at 10 per cent of its GDP or thirdly to borrow more from its Chinese lenders thus risking a debt trap. 

Indian Political Hoopla

India’s general election are within earshot. BJP being the incumbent party has its track record to defend while Congress as national challenger has ample to attack on. Regional parties are arraying their forces in their respective bastions and entering into pre poll alliances.

In terms of issues for political parties to spar on, agrarian distress and youth unemployment are at front and centre. Congress is trying to tar Modi with corruption scandal on procurement of Rafale aircraft.

It is an all vs BJP scenario with BJP on defensive. Pre poll surveys are indicating that the ruling party has lost ground and that Modi wave though still a force, is no longer a tsunami. The outcome that is most likely is BJP coming back with weakened numbers and as a coalition partner thus imperiling Modi’s continuance as a dominant and assertive leader.

Terror Calculus

In a geopolitical scenario like this if you are a deep state operative in Pakistan’s Intelligence Directorate you have a situation to contend with. On one hand your budgetary allocation might be slashed because of the prevailing economic conditions when all non- strategic and immediate expenditures will be pared. This means you might have to shut down sundry programs and disband many of the militia units that you have nurtured over time. Apart from loss of these assets you run the risk of tiger not going away once you stop feeding it. It turns back on you.

Now with likelihood of your protégé Afghan Taliban settling into afghan govt as partners , if a pacifist or a coalition govt gets elected in India, the risk of Indo-Pak conflict reduces substantially for they might not have the political will for it. Thus the proxy wars that you have been waging at both western and eastern borders, might lose steam, impairing your relevance.

As a strategic planner in Pindi then, you have two immediate strategic objectives to scope for — loss of budgets and loss of future. Your solution is Pulwama.

You calculate that with Uri happening and its film success still fresh in Indian public psyche, if the attack is brazen enough it will bring India and Pakistan to brink of war. This conflict shifts the electoral discourse from economy to national security as it fans nationalism across India. Your bet is that BJP is shrewd enough to convert this public mood into electoral gains. Modi’s chances of getting re-elected are multiplied. The joker thus would have helped batman back to his feet, for the fight to resume. 

Also, locally it ensures that your relevance in ongoing and the war you have brought to your doorstep will ensure that no politician is able to contemplate slashing your budgets. In fact, in this hyper tense standoff you can sue for a budgetary enhancement. Thus, both your objectives are checked. You have the resources for it as also you have a battle on hand.

So Mr Khan, this is what Pakistan gets out of plotting and executing Pulwama attack on Indian security establishment. It gets the continuity for its deep state. Being a smart political operator, as you so graciously decline the Nobel peace prize clamor, pivoting it to Kashmir resolution, and as in days ahead you grapple with this civil military power dichotomy, you will be well advised to keep in mind the Shirky principle which posits that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”.