Modi’s desperation

Modi’s desperation
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, claims that the rivers of the Indus Basin belong to India and Pakistan has no rights over these resources. He says he will repeal the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan so that water can be diverted upstream from flowing into Pakistan in order to fulfill the requirements of agriculture in India’s states of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. He says Pakistan “must pay for its wrong doing” because “terrorism will not be tolerated by India any more”.

Pakistan has declared that any attempt to do so will cause an unprecedented humanitarian disaster and will be construed as an “act of war”. Pakistan’s Indus Water Basin underwater aquifer is the second most “water-stressed” in the world because its economy is the most water intensive in the world.

The Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960 by PM Jawaharlal Nehru and President General Ayub Khan under the aegis of the World Bank. It has survived three wars between the two countries and equitably distributed water to 300 million people over 26 million acres in the Indus Water Basin. It allocates nearly 20 percent of the Indus water to India mainly through the three eastern rivers and about 60 per cent to Pakistan through the western rivers.

The need for such a treaty arose after partition when the “standstill agreement” between the two countries on water sharing expired in 1948, and India cut off the water in the Central Bari Doab Canals. India also took the Kashmir dispute to the UN following a short war in the disputed territory. It took ten years of haggling before the two countries agreed to sign the treaty and that is one reason why it has withstood the test of time. In recent years, however, tensions have arisen following Indian designs to build big and small dams and reservoirs upstream on the Indus that seem to violate certain provisions of the Treaty regarding the waters of the three western rivers allotted to Pakistan. After bilateral efforts failed to resolve these issues, Pakistan approached the World Bank to facilitate arbitration as allowed in the rules and practised earlier but India continues to resist third party arbitration. This Indian obduracy has led to bitter recriminations in Pakistan. Under the circumstances, Mr Modi’s latest threat following renewed hostilities along the LoC and international border in which about 100 soldiers and civilians have died on both sides is raising hackles in Pakistan.

Mr Modi’s anti-Pakistan agenda is basically aimed at winning votes in elections and diverting international attention from his government’s continuing human rights atrocities and violent repression in Indian Kashmir. His focus is on sanctioning Pakistan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and isolating it. How effective is he likely to prove?

Mr Modi’s election tactics may not work in the Punjab and UP, both of which are poised to ditch the BJP. The new Trump administration is not likely to back his aggressive designs vis a vis Pakistan until it has had a chance to try and “incentivise” Islamabad to play ball in Afghanistan. Nor is India likely to succeed at sanctioning Pakistan at the UN. The Chinese are likely to continue using their veto power to protect Pakistan in which their stakes have grown exponentially following proposed investments in CPEC. This is aimed at securing an alternative route for their trade and commerce, reducing their dependence on the sea route that is increasingly being threatened by the US in tandem with India, Australia and Japan. The military options of cold start and hot pursuit across the border to intimidate Pakistan are also non-starters because Pakistan has fashioned appropriate defensive military strategies to counter such adventurism. Finally, there are some very good reasons why India dare not abrogate the Indus Water Treaty unilaterally without seriously adverse consequences for itself.

First, it would bring global condemnation, India would lose the high moral ground in the post-Uri period and attention would switch back to the Kashmir imbroglio that is the root cause of Indo-Pak hostilities. Second, Any attempt to bottle up the water in the upper Indus without first building dams and reservoirs – long term projects — would lead to massive flooding in major cities in Indian Kashmir and Punjab. Third, by setting an outrageous precedent, Pakistan would be provoked to pressurise China – with which India has no such treaty — to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra river and erode the agricultural economy of Assam on which India is dependent. Fourth, if India closes the water tap Pakistan is most certainly going to respond by opening the jihad tap to engulf north India in flames. This would push the two countries into an outright war situation in which neither can be a winner because of their nuclear arsenals.

Narendra Modi’s warlike rhetoric and desperate actions are jeopardising India’s economic growth and the secular democracy that underpins it. Pakistan’s patience and restraint is laudable. It must not be provoked into any precipitous action.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.