It’s time for sober re­flec­tion, not cel­e­bra­tions

The LOC strikes have sent out a strong mes­sage. But can Modi risk a con­flict that might un­der­mine In­dia’s growth?

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - NATION -

In the uni­verse of the 24x7 me­dia, there is lit­er­ally no place to hide. Which is why it should come as no sur­prise that a video of Prime Minister Naren­dra Modi speak­ing out as Gu­jarat chief minister against the then UPA’S Pak­istan pol­icy went vi­ral last week. The video shows Modi mock­ing the govern­ment for not giv­ing Pak­istan a be­fit­ting re­ply to a ter­ror at­tack. “Why are you not march­ing into Pak­istan in­stead of beg­ging the world for sup­port,” he can be heard say­ing in the video. Which is why the an­nounce­ment of sur­gi­cal strikes on Pak­istan-based ter­ror camps in the af­ter­math of the Uri at­tack is the PM’S mo­ment of truth: How far now does Modi go in liv­ing up to his pre-2014 elec­tion prom­ise of “teach­ing Pak­istan a les­son”.

In a sense, the tran­si­tion from be­ing a gung-ho Op­po­si­tion politi­cian bay­ing for blood to cre­at­ing a tem­plate for strate­gic re­straint re­flects the power of democ­racy, one that can tem­per the rough edges of po­lit­i­cal dem­a­goguery by the chal­lenges of gov­er­nance in a com­plex so­ci­ety. In his speeches in Kozhikode and Mann Ki Baat, Modi has shown a re­as­sur­ing prag­ma­tism in his re­marks on Pak­istan: Send­ing out a tough mes­sage to Is­lam­abad with­out ap­pear­ing bel­li­cose or en­gag­ing in the grand-stand­ing that his past at times might sug­gest. Even the sur­gi­cal strikes ap­pear to have been car­ried out more with the in­tent of a first warn­ing rather than a dec­la­ra­tion of war. To that ex­tent, Modi’s pol­icy has been marked by an ap­pro­pri­ate, rather than a dis­pro­por­tion­ate, re­sponse.

Con­trast that with his sup­port­ers, many of whom seem to be­lieve that Modi needs to go much fur­ther. “A jaw for a tooth”, screamed the BJP gen­eral sec­re­tary, Ram Mad­hav. An­other BJP leader bizarrely claimed in a TV de­bate that by next In­de­pen­dence Day the In­dian flag would be fly­ing over Is­lam­abad. On so­cial me­dia, the BJP’S In­ter­net army is jubilant over re­ports of the “sur­gi­cal strike” and han­kers for more. Even while the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship has spo­ken of a lim­ited op­er­a­tion, war has been de­clared in TV stu­dios and cy­berspace.

This un­con­trolled jin­go­ism should again comeas­no­sur­prise “Thelets­go­to­war”hys just the po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture, but also TV rat­ing points. War­ring In­dian and Pak­istani gen­er­als make for “good” TV — a eu­phemism for plac­ing sen­sa­tion above sense through high-deci­bel slugfests. Tele­vi­sion has cre­ated a large con­stituency for war: There is less space for any mod­er­ate, nu­anced po­si­tion in a de­bate that is de­signed on the lines of a Wwe-like wrestling for­mat where noise mat­ters more than news.

For the BJP’S core sup­port, stri­dent na­tion­al­ism that seeks to treat Pak­istan as the per­ma­nent “enemy” who must be de­stroyed at all costs fits in with the Ak­hand Bharat world­view that still doesn’t recog­nise Par­ti­tion. It is al­most the mir­ror im­age of those hot­heads in Pak­istan who would like In­dia to bleed with a “thou­sand cuts”.

The saf­fron Right has for long be­lieved that the Congress presided over a nam­by­pamby State that gave away far too many con­ces­sions to Pak­istan. A large part of their an­tipa­thy to Jawa­har­lal Nehru, and to some ex­tent Ma­hatma Gandhi too, is the ac­cu­sa­tion that the Congress lead­er­ship never called the bluff of the Pak­ista­nis Right from 1947, with Kash­mir in par­tic­u­lar a fes­ter­ing sore. Now, that there is the first ma­jor­ity Right-wing govern­ment led by a leader with a self-pro­claimed “chhap­pan ki chati” (56 inch chest) the saf­fron war­riors have cor­rected. If not the en­tire Pak­istani State, then at the very least Pak­istan-oc­cu­pied Kash­mir, must be re-cap­tured.

Which is why many of Modi’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers seem to be al­most goad­ing the PM to de­clare war at the ear­li­est rather than hold back. The diplo­matic iso­la­tion of Pak­istan that the govern­ment is at­tempt­ing is a painstak­ing process; one that in­volves reach­ing out to nu­mer­ous stake­hold­ers . It re­quires skill and re­solve, but most im­por­tantly, pa­tience. It’s an ap­proach that has been at­tempted by Modi’s pre­de­ces­sors, Man­mo­han Singh and AB Va­j­payee with mixed re­sults. The only prob­lem is that the larg­erthan-life im­age of Modi was built on a mus­cu­lar pol­i­tics that sees the PM as an Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger-like ‘Ter­mi­na­tor’, not a states­man who uses diplo­macy as a pre­ferred weapon.

The ques­tion then is, will the Modi ad­min­is­tra­tion fol­low up the sur­gi­cal strikes with a more con­certed as­sault on Pak­istan’s ter­ror ma­chine. Elec­tions in the key state of Ut­tar Pradesh are just months away and Modi is aware that he can­not af­ford an­other “jhappi-pappi” mo­ment with Nawaz Sharif, which is why the Saarc sum­mit has been called off. At the same time, he has to im­pose a heavy cost on Is­lam­abad for har­bour­ing ter­ror­ists. The cal­cu­lated strikes across LOC may send out a bold mes­sage, but to what ex­tent can the PM take risks of an es­ca­lated con­flict that might end up un­der­min­ing the In­dian growth story is the real ques­tion. It is a mo­ment that re­quires sober re­flec­tion rather than pre­ma­ture cel­e­bra­tion. So far, the prime minister has struck the right bal­ance but for how long can he keep the war­mon­gers at bay.

Post-script: It’s not just Modi, but even his col­league Sushma Swaraj has had to nu­ance her re­sponse. When an In­dian soldier was be­headed in 2013, Swaraj had im­me­di­ately called for 10 Pak­istani heads for ev­ery one In­dian killed. Now, her well crafted speech at the UN shows that play­ing to the do­mes­tic gallery is a very dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion to build­ing a global coali­tion against ter­ror.

REUTERS

The strikes ap­pear to be a warn­ing rather than a dec­la­ra­tion of war

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