7 January 2016

Modi caught in a bind War with Pak a non-option, but no retaliation will rile followers

Jan 6 2016, MMK Bhadrakumar
THE terror attack on the Pathankot base is being simplistically interpreted as an attempt by the Pakistani military establishment to detract from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brilliant display of diplomacy to ‘drop by’out of the blue at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family estate in Lahore on December 25. But the state of play is far more complicated than that.
Pakistan will keep up the pressure on serious negotiation, which India will find unpalatable.
Indeed, there is some sign of confusion also as to whether Prime Minister Sharif wouldn’t have been au fait with Rawalpindi’s sabotage plan. There is an overall lack of clarity in the government’s account of what is happening, compounded by the acute need to cover up the embarrassment over security lapses and the inept handling of the looming threat despite intelligence inputs in advance. 

The Pathankot terror strike coincides with an attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, which also comes within a week of Modi’s visit to Afghanistan. The Pakistani objective appears to be to throw the gauntlet at Modi himself. Make no mistake, the ‘powers that be’ in Pakistan have challenged Modi to live up to his carefully-cultivated self-image as a tough leader who is capable of paying back terrorism with terrorism, waging ‘swift, short’ wars if need be, resorting to ‘hot pursuit’, while playing the subtle ‘great game’ in Afghanistan threatening to dismember Pakistan if push comes to shove.

Today, Modi faces a big dilemma. If he decides to live up to his fearsome reputation and orders the subalterns to retaliate with force, there could be unforeseen consequences and the downstream developments will most certainly spin out of control. Washington has already raised the spectre of an India-Pakistan war, alerting the need for the international community’s intervention in the developing situation. No world capital, including Washington, has cared to point finger at Pakistan for staging the attack in Pathankot, which is a sad reflection on the Modi government’s failed containment strategy against that country.

At any rate, with an economy in slow growth, the government needs to borrow money to wage a war and the balance of military power is so delicately poised that an outright victory over Pakistan would be far from certain. A stalemate will not serve India’s purpose either. What is beyond doubt is that a war will mean sudden death for Modi’s so-called ‘development agenda’, which has been struggling to take off after nearly 20 months into the 60-month term of the government.

On the other hand, Modi cannot afford to disappoint his hardcore followers. They feel let down if he does not live up to his reputation for being a ‘forceful’ leader. Of course, if the Modi mystique wears off, there will be a political price to pay. And that could be damaging at a time when there are signs already that the nation is becoming sceptical of the Modi brand. The point with brand value is that once it begins to wear off, the dubious quality of the product begins to get exposed.

The dilemma, however, is going to be even more acute if the government proceeds on the dialogue track as if nothing really changed after the Pathankot attack. The pitfalls could be many. To begin with, India will be entering the dialogue without a well-thought out strategy. The government has been blowing hot and cold on Pakistan and the current phase favouring dialogue may well be yet another whimsical phase, given the robust opposition to the very idea of dialogue among influential sections of opinion within the ruling circles.

On the contrary, Pakistan has disclosed that it has already drawn up a six-month road map for the dialogue process to run its course, and that it hopes to make progress on some ‘doable’ issues. Does the Modi government have an action plan? Indeed, there are ‘doable’ issues, but does the Modi government have the political will to move forward? The Siachen dispute comes readily to mind. Again, Pakistan most certainly would expect discussions over the Kashmir problem. But the maximal agenda of the government would have us believe that all that needs to be discussed is the ‘return’ of POK and the Northern Areas, which rightfully belong to India.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has made serious charges regarding India’s alleged covert support of terrorism directed against that country. It handed over to the Obama administration last October a bulky dossier in three volumes detailing its allegations with purported evidence. The Obama administration is yet to throw the dossier out of the window, and instead, the joint statement issued after Sharif’s visit to the White House mentioned that India and Pakistan should discuss their ‘mutual concerns’ over terrorism. (Interestingly, this is also the line taken by the US state department on the Pathankot terror strike.)

Suffice it to say, the government’s Pakistan policies through the past 19-month period have come full circle. The core issue increasingly is the credibility problem surrounding the persona of Modi. The prevailing opinion in Pakistan is that Modi is a Hindu fundamentalist who built a political career by whipping up communal polarisation, and that calibrating the India-Pakistan tensions suits his and his party’s political agenda. Many thoughtful Pakistanis genuinely fear that Modi might trigger an armed conflict with Pakistan at some point as a means to divert attention from the lacklustre record of his government. 

All in all, therefore, Modi is caught in a bind. War is a non-option but lack of retaliation for the high-profile Pathankot terror strike disappoints his ardent followers. A decision to continue the dialogue track is the right thing to do, but this time around Pakistan can be expected to keep up the pressure on India to negotiate seriously, which the Modi government will find unpalatable for the simple reason that in their view there is nothing to negotiate except cross-border terrorism. A new cycle of terrorist violence threatens the country’s internal security.

The obvious thing to do is for the government to proceed on the dialogue track with the full backing of a national consensus. This should have come naturally because after 19 months in power, Modi has virtually borrowed the farsighted vision of his predecessor Manmohan Singh to constructively engage Pakistan in dialogue. But the BJP is fixated on ratcheting up confrontation with the Congress. Modi has reduced foreign policy to a platform to embellish his political profile and is unwilling to share the limelight even with the Cabinet minister holding the portfolio. He and he alone must own up the responsibility if the India-Pakistan relationship touches a criticality barely 10 days after his dramatic touch-down in Lahore.

— The writer is a former Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey

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