Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Kozhikode is likely to be remembered as a decisive turning point in the India-Pakistan crisis, which erupted after the jihadist attack in Uri. In stating that his strategic goal is an India “free from poverty, full of prosperity”, and that this objective is linked to “peace and good thoughts”, the Prime Minister has made clear that war isn’t on his agenda.
Less than a week after his senior party colleague, Ram Madhav, called on the Army to claim “for a tooth the entire jaw”, the Prime Minister has placed the country’s guiding principle of strategic restraint back at the core of security policy.
Prime Minister Modi’s speech was delivered just hours after his meeting with Army chief General Dalbir Singh, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and Vice Admiral Karambir Singh (Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba was out of the city), where preparedness for future crisis was discussed.
Though addressed, as a rhetorical device, to the people of Pakistan, there’s little doubt that the Prime Minister had a message to party hawks clamouring for war. He pointed out that Pakistan’s long war against India had met strategic failure. Instead of being bled by this war, the Prime Minister said, “the whole world recognises India to be the world’s fastest growing major economy”.
“Leaders of the neighbouring country said they will fight India for 1,000 years,” he said, in an acid reference to former Pakistan PMs Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto, one executed by his army chief and the other assassinated by jihadists, “but where did they disappear — we can’t see them any more”.
The speech marked a tacit acknowledgment of the long-standing doctrine of strategic restraint, which privileged growth and investment over military gains. Prime Minister Modi, in his speech, invited Pakistan’s people to participate in this vision, too. “People of Pakistan”, he urged, “ask your leaders: both our countries got freedom together, so why does India export software and your country export terrorists?”
Prime Minister Modi promised the sacrifice of the soldiers killed in Uri would not be forgotten, but his only threat was diplomatic, not military: “India has succeeded in isolating you in the world. We will ramp it up and force you live alone in the world.”
Key to the Prime Minister’s argument for restraint was an acknowledgment of cold reality: in the midst of a war of attrition, he appeared to suggest, Indians have to accept that there will be some reverses. Even though Indian security force fatalities have surged this year to their highest point since 2010 — touching 64, more than twice the 30 recorded last year — so have killings of terrorists.
Equally important, violence levels are still well below the numbers seen before 2010 — and just a small fraction of those recorded prior to November 2003, when an India-Pakistan ceasefire went in place along the Line of Control.
From figures his intelligence services have shown him, the Prime Minister knows the real challenge is to keep infiltration levels down, so jihadist groups can’t capitalise on the large-scale protests sweeping the state.
For all his election polemic, the Prime Minister has realised that investment, growth and war-making just don’t go together. In his decision-making, the Prime Minister has followed in the path of his predecessors. In 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999, India chose not to pursue wars to militarily optimal ends, realising the costs of protracted conflict would outweigh the potential gains. In 2001 and 2008, India chose not to go to war.
Living next to an unstable, hostile neighbour, the next crisis always looms. The Prime Minister’s message to his people is stark: India has to choose between growth, at the cost of soaking up a few blows and some injured pride — or become locked in a brawl that will level its fortunes with that of its neighbour.