It must be very lonely at the top, at this time, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He faces, perhaps, the most difficult choice of his tenure for which no one but the PM himself will be held accountable. It’s a choice in the face of the most provocative and cynical action by Pakistan’s military establishment. No wonder, then, for the first time since I can remember, Modi’s face showed anguish. It reflected his despair at India’s offer of friendship being rebuffed — with repeated state-sponsored terrorist attacks.
It is critical for Modi to understand Pakistan’s gameplan in launching the latest cross-border terror attack on the Indian army in Uri. Just as in 1989, the Pakistan army has timed this action to derive the maximum mileage from the tragic events in the Kashmir Valley. Rawalpindi seeks, as always, to exploit a two-fold advantage from the current situation. One, as Mehbooba Mufti commented, is to create a war-like situation in the Valley in the hope that its heavily-armed terrorist suicide squads will find support from protesting Kashmiri youth. Two, to try and hide its trans-border terrorism in the eyes of the world community as being fostered by the conditions in Kashmir and put India on the backfoot. Why else would Uri happen days before Nawaz Sharif is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly?
But on this occasion, there is a bigger prize that Rawalpindi is after. For it, Modi’s success as PM is the worst possible outcome. That would imply Rawalpindi facing a resurgent India with a fast growing economy; an India, whose claims on the global governance high table would be recognised; and which under Modi would have a highly credible and strong development state, rather than the perennially soft and inefficient state it is known to be. Rawalpindi’s gameplan is to unleash provocations that will drive Modi to precipitate action, which, in turn, will derail his development plans and bring his tenure under a dark cloud.
The alternative scenario of Modi riding on a wave of anti-Pakistan hysteria in India also has its possible upside for Rawalpindi, especially if it stokes communal fires. By quickly coming to Pakistan’s assistance, in denying that the terror attack had its source in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, China has made itself complicit in the Pakistani gameplan. Perhaps Pakistan is consciously playing to the Chinese tune, having received largesse from it for the economic corridor.
What should Modi’s response be? He has to work out the likely impact of any action he takes on the domestic polity. It is rather disingenuous to argue that foreign policy actions should be divorced from domestic political and economic considerations. He has to figure out the likely impact of actions against Pakistan on the NDA’s electoral prospects in the elections in Punjab, Gujarat and UP and indeed the 2019 general elections. We do not want India to suffer from another bout of political instability.
Modi has already demonstrated that he will not be baited by opportunist opposition leaders or fulminating television anchors, in search of higher TRPs, asking him to match his actions with election campaign rhetoric. He would do well to ignore even his own party’s intellectuals and strategists who have called for “a jaw in place of a tooth”. The DGMO’s statement that India will act at the time and place of its choosing should have put paid to the hopes of such sundries. He should also take immediate steps to assure the minorities, whose nationalist credentials have never ever been in doubt, that their safety and security will remain his government’s priority concern. It will also be highly desirable for the rightist Hindu fringe to maintain complete silence if they cannot help the nation’s cause by jettisoning their communal agenda.
Modi must also take one more step. He must ask for, and enforce, accountability for India’s intelligence and security establishment. Pathankot and Uri in relatively quick succession, along with a number of incidents over the past two years, should be sufficient evidence that these stalwarts, despite their past credentials, have been found terribly wanting. The heads of the security and intelligence establishment and agencies should strengthen Modi’s hands by putting in their papers in line with the motto of “nation before party, government before self.” It will be in keeping with the trust that Modi has placed in these lieutenants for them to accept their responsibility for the present unenviable situation in which their leader, government and party find themselves. It is also high time that some of our “agencies”, which enjoy complete carte blanche, are subjected to public scrutiny and accountability. This is common practice in all mature democracies.
Finally, Modi has to understand that his interlocutors across India’s western borders are located in Rawalpindi, not Islamabad. He has to cut through that smoke and engage with the PAHQ in the full knowledge that he is dealing with people with ruthless devotion to their personal cause in which the ordinary Pakistani citizens are but cannon fodder. Such people are hard core realists who will only understand tough responses. Modi will have to bite the bullet and teach them a lesson that reduces their credibility and legitimacy both domestically and globally. But this must be done strictly on the time and at a place of India’s own choosing and in a manner in which they least expect.