In a speech displaying restraint — amid calls from within the party to avenge the death of 18 soldiers — Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a leaf out of his own book which he had first used in May 2014, before BJP won the Lok Sabha polls, when he had suggested that India and Pakistan fight against poverty and unemployment.
“I want to tell Pakistan that India is ready to fight you. If you have guts, come forward to fight against poverty. Let’s see who wins? Who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India,” Modi said in Kozhikode on Saturday.
Modi’s comments on poverty and unemployment had come in the first week of May, during the Lok Sabha poll campaign. It was reiterated in May this year, though the two countries were still locked in an adversarial position over the Pathankot attack.
“This is a mark of a mature leader…even in this hour of provocation, he has shown maturity. He understands the challenge and wants the energy and determination of the country to be redirected in a positive direction,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told The Sunday Express.
In May this year, Modi said in an interview to The Wall Street Journal: “In my view, our ties can truly scale great heights once Pakistan removes the self-imposed obstacle of terrorism in the path of our relationship.” He said he has always maintained that instead of fighting with each other, India and Pakistan should together fight poverty.
The PM’s comments in May this year, on the second anniversary of his government—“Pakistan’s failure to take effective action in punishing the perpetrators of terror attacks limits the forward progress in our ties” — had come at a time when New Delhi and Islamabad had put the dialogue process on hold after the Pathankot attack.
British newspaper Telegraph reported in May 2014 that Modi had said, in an interview to an Indian news outlet, that “India and Pakistan can together write a new chapter in the development of South Asia if the two countries were to concentrate on fighting poverty and unemployment”.
A South Block source, who was among those who helped craft the PM’s speech Saturday, told The Sunday Express that Modi’s statements are aimed at not just domestic expectations but also at the international community — especially since External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj may be asked in New York about India’s response template in the wake of the Uri attacks. “However, he has also said that the lives of these soldiers will not go in vain,” the source said, about managing domestic expectations. He said that the PM had himself given this idea, before his advisers and speech-writers in a briefing in the last one week.
Sources said the PM’s speech was carefully thought-out, especially since there was “war-mongering” in the debates in the media and social media and that would have led the international community to lean on Delhi in the coming weeks — unless the PM spoke out in a calmer voice.
A diplomat, who was involved in the UPA government’s response in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, recalled that then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee used to regularly tell the media that “all options are open” or “all options are on the table”. This had spooked the international community in November-December 2008 and led to almost all major powers to make calls and visits to convey the message of restraint to Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh, he said.
“We want to avoid such a situation… even as we work on isolating Pakistan at the global level, and think through our response at other levels,” the diplomat said.
A western diplomat, who watched Modi’s speech on Saturday, said that while Modi’s comments would have a “soothing impact” on the voices advocating military response, they also perceived it as a “tactic to bide time” before the government decides to take any concrete action.