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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to his party workers, on Saturday, called for India and Pakistan to wage a war on poverty and literacy to see who wins first. It is an encouraging development, particularly when it comes after the demands for “a jaw for a tooth” from senior leaders of the ruling party following the death of 19 Indian soldiers at the hands of Pakistani terrorists in Uri last Sunday.
War between any two countries, especially when they are both nuclear-armed like India and Pakistan, has to be avoided to the extent possible. But in some exceptional cases, war is truly unavoidable whatever be the consequences. Can anyone argue against the Second World War against Nazi Germany? That would be morally reprehensible, to say the least. Some lines are really thick red lines, and Nazi Germany had crossed one such line.
With Uri, has Pakistan crossed that thick red line for India to exercise its military options? That is a decision the government has to take, and the Prime Minister, as many commentators have pointed out today, has chosen to exercise “strategic restraint”. But was it really a choice? Are we making a virtue out of a necessity?
“Strategic restraint” would be a valid choice if India had a menu of viable military options available to it to choose from and exercise. Realistically speaking, with the risks of conflict escalation between two nuclear neighbours, there are hardly any viable military options available to India. From 2001, when Indian armed forces were mobilised following the terror attack on Parliament, to 2008, when India considered but discarded the option of surgical strikes after the Mumbai terror strikes, the attendant risks of a military response to Pakistan outweigh the benefits.
All Indian political leaders have come to the same conclusion and Mr Modi has been no different. It looks different because of his pre-PM days rhetoric, but like his predecessors, Mr Modi really did not have a choice but to exercise “strategic restraint”. As former R&AW chief Vikram Sood said on Twitter, strategic restraint “is a cover-up” when no “option for strategic action exists”.
The issue at the heart of this dilemma is the political aim of any military action by India. Bodies of a few score dead Pakistani soldiers are fine to satisfy the blood-thirst for revenge in some minds, but they will not stop terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Even a clear victory in the 1971 War, when India facilitated the liberation of Bangladesh, did not change the strategic calculus of Pakistani establishment against India. Prime Minister ZA Bhutto assiduously pursued the nuclear bomb and General Zia pioneered the art of cross-border terrorism — in Punjab, and eventually in Kashmir — under the threat of the nuclear umbrella. It has continued since.
The starting point of any discussion has to be the political aim and the desired end-state of a military response by India. As long as we don’t have clarity on our political aims, we will have to hide behind the jargon of choosing “strategic restraint”. This restraint after Uri is neither strategic nor a matter of choice. It is a burden of necessity.