NEW DELHI (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – India said on Friday (Feb 15) it will withdraw Pakistan’s most-favoured nation status as well take all diplomatic steps to ensure the “complete isolation” of its neighbour, a day after a deadly assault in Kashmir killed 40 in India’s worst terror attack under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said there was “incontrovertible evidence” of Pakistan’s hand in the assault Thursday on a convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir which killed at least 40 paramilitary personnel.
Those responsible will have to “pay a heavy price”, Mr Jaitley said.
Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based terror group, claimed responsibility for the attack that took place in Pulwama near the state capital Srinagar.
Islamabad denied any link.
It was the worst since a 2016 ambush on a military camp which prompted India to launch cross-border attacks against Pakistan. That incident claimed 19 lives.
The deadly strike is the latest challenge for Modi who’s already battling a slide in popularity over rising concerns of lack of jobs, and could prompt New Delhi to launch a limited military strike to shore up support.
At the heart of the dispute is Kashmir which has been divided between nuclear-armed Indian and Pakistan since 1947 but is claimed in full by both. India is estimated to have up to 500,000 troops stationed in the region.
“This attack will pose a major test for Modi,” said Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre.
“Given the fast-approaching election and his increasing political vulnerability, he will be under tremendous pressure to resort to some type of muscular response.”
New Delhi says Jaish-e-Mohammad has carried out attacks on Indian security forces in the past but Pakistan has refused to act.
“This terror group is led by the international terrorist Masood Azhar, who has been given full freedom by the government of Pakistan to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity,” India’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied any role. “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations,” it said in a statement.
Modi condemned the attack, which he described as “despicable” in a tweet on Thursday evening. “The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain.”
The White House called “on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region.”
The attack is bound to raise tensions in South Asia in part because it comes in the lead up to India’s general elections due by May, said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia between 2010 and 2013.
“The attack undoubtedly increases pressure on the Modi government to respond militarily, not only due to the upcoming elections, but as a question of national pride,” she said, adding that it “suggests that there’s not a lot India can do to improve its ties with Pakistan absent a government and military across the border willing to rein in terror.”
Pressure on China
The attack may also put pressure on China, a close ally of Pakistan, to alter its “indefensible position” at the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing has blocked India’s attempts to list Jaish-e-Mohammed and Azhar as globally proscribed terrorists, Ayres said.
Domestically, however, the assault on troops could present Modi with a political opportunity ahead of his re-election bid, according to Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Following the 2016 attack in Uri, Modi’s administration played up its cross-border strikes in state-level elections, and is likely to do the same thing if it chooses to respond militarily now, he added.
“It does set a possible pretext for a forceful response, which could have a ‘rally round the flag’ effect which could create a nationalist fervor that would bolster Modi’s standing,” Vaishnav said.
“If the government mounts a forceful response now, there is zero doubt in my mind that it would become an important pillar of the BJP’s re-election campaign.”
Indian senior government minister, Arun Jaitley, said in a tweet that those responsible “will be given an unforgettable lesson for their heinous act.”
Both India and the US see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and often bring up the fact that the leadership of groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the gruesome Mumbai attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.
However, since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military have attempted to push for peace with India – which has been seen with deep skepticism in New Delhi.
For years both nations’ armies have sporadically exchanged fire across the heavily militarised de factor border in Kashmir k known as the “Line of Control.” For now, Modi is unlikely to react by sending troops across the border, said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, a senior South Asia analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group.
“Modi is most likely to authorize some sort of limited retaliation, such as artillery strikes, that burnish his image of strength without risking calls for retaliation on the Pakistani side and further dangerous escalation,” he said in an email.
“Failing to retaliate in any way is politically untenable.”
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