It is said that ‘Hard words break no bones’. But they have a way of coming back to haunt the speaker.I am prepared to allow much latitude for a leader who had never been a minister in the central government and was, by his own admission, an outsider so far as Delhi and the central government were concerned. Even so, the language that Mr Narendra Modi had used against Pakistan, when leading the campaign for the BJP in the Lok Sabha election, was unusually belligerent. It revealed a man who had not reflected on the choice, and the consequences, of his words.
Feeling the heat
Prime Minister Modi is feeling the heat now. According to a survey/poll, by an overwhelming majority, the ‘people’ want India to use maximum military force against Pakistan. Cheerleaders among the media unabashedly declared that ‘India wants revenge’ and ‘India wants retribution’. A general secretary of the BJP (on loan from the RSS) proclaimed the doctrine of ‘for one tooth, the whole jaw’. Most Indians, according to the survey/poll, did not approve of the way the Modi government had handled the situation in the wake of the Pathankot and Uri terror attacks.
The Prime Minister said that the perpetrators of the Uri terror attack “will not go unpunished”. Juxtaposed with what Mr Modi had said in the run-up to the election in 2014, it was not unfair to interpret his statement to mean that India will use military force to hit back at Pakistan.
As I write this column, five days after the Uri terror attack, there has been no military action. There was an unverified claim of the Army killing some infiltrators (and losing a jawan). The ministry of external affairs stirred itself to action in words—strongly worded statements, a scolding to the high commissioner of Pakistan and a stinging rebuttal at the United Nations.
It is déjà vu. We have gone through this ritual before. There is a terror attack, the evidence points to Pakistan as the source, there are indignant voices and calls for retribution, saner voices advise a measured approach, the limits of India’s capacity are grudgingly acknowledged, and India finally settles for a diplomatic offensive. This may appear to be a loser’s rationalisation, but it is not.
The best deterrent against terror attacks emanating from Pakistan is a coherent and consistent policy towards Pakistan, the main elements of which ought to be a recognition that—
1. Pakistan is not a stable country under one government; there are many structures within Pakistan that enjoy governmental powers, notably the Army and the ISI. There are also many non-State actors who have a free run and the blessings of State actors.
2. The internal security situation in Pakistan is brittle. There is unrest in many provinces.
3. Pakistan’s economy is fragile and on the brink of failure. The federal government has little support among the people and is desperate to drum up support through diversionary actions.
4. Pakistan is ruled by a narrow elite class that has captured the positions of authority in the bureaucracy and the defence forces. The politicians—also largely from the same narrow elite class—have no alternative but to join hands with their compatriots in the bureaucracy and the defence establishment.
5. Islamist forces, if not the IS itself, have gained strength in Pakistan in the last decade.
The UPA government’s policy towards Pakistan was an attempt to recognise these elements and forge a policy that would safeguard the territory of India, secure the country against terror attacks, and deter Pakistan from embarking upon any misadventure in Jammu & Kashmir. It was not a perfect policy, there were a few mis-steps but, by and large, we achieved our objectives.
There was no war between India and Pakistan; the last war was fought over Kargil in 1999. There was no freeze in the relationship; India and Pakistan continued to engage with each other at different levels without exuberant gestures (singing “Happy birthday to you” at Lahore) or imperious cancellations (on the eve of the foreign secretary-level talks).
After the Mumbai terror attack, there was no terror attack between 2008 and 2014 whose source could be traced to Pakistan. There was no fidayeen attack between January 2010 and March 2013. In short, Pakistan behaved. The situation in the Kashmir Valley improved dramatically after 2010 and there was a boom in tourist arrivals. The years between 2010 and 2014 witnessed the lowest number of casualties among civilians and security forces.
Wisdom lies in bringing hard analysis, cold logic, pragmatism and self-interest to crafting a Pakistan policy. We must learn lessons from the past: Kargil, Agra, Sharm el-Sheikh, Mumbai, Lahore/Pathankot and Uri. Under the circumstances, a defensive-offensive policy seems to be the best policy.
That means we must first take measures on our side to strengthen border security, prevent infiltration, increase our intelligence assets, and take pre-emptive action wherever possible.
That means we must engage Pakistan at different levels, but keep a deliberate and cautious distance. That means we must acknowledge that there is an unresolved political issue in J&K and take bold, out-of-the-box initiatives to find an honourable and constitutional solution through dialogue with the stakeholders in J&K.
And, in this game of chess, that means not succumbing to hubris (when we make an important gain) or to despondency (when we suffer a temporary setback).