September 28, 2016
More than a week after militants from across the border attacked an Army camp in Uri near the Line of Control, killing 18 soldiers, it is now apparent that the Narendra Modi government has ruled out an attack on Pakistan, even as it has directly blamed it for the raid.
This despite mounting pressure on the government to take a tough line on Pakistan in the aftermath of the September 18 attack, one of the deadliest attacks on the armed forces in peacetime.
This strategic restraint in response to provocation from Pakistan is nothing new.
Since 2014, there have been 20 attacks on military installations in Kashmir by infiltrators from across the LoC and even two in the hitherto peaceful Punjab – the attack on a police station in Gurdaspur in which seven were killed and the raid on the Pathankot Air Force Station in January, which killed six security personnel.
In all these cases, Modi has maintained the basics of the policy of restraint shown by the Manmohan Singh government.
What’s different, however, is the media response.
While Singh was lambasted for what people perceived as a weak response to repeated militant attacks, criticism has been greatly muted in the case of Modi. In fact, some hawks have gone out of their way to praise the prime minister for his response to Pakistan, which has mostly focussed on criticising Islamabad for its position on terror.
Strategic restraint or Hobson’s choice?
India’s policy of not responding to Pakistan-sponsored terror has grandly been called “strategic restraint”. In reality, India has very little space to manoeuvre when it comes to using force against Pakistan. Options such as surgical strikes require a vast gap between the military capabilities of the two countries – one that does not exist. Add nuclear weapons, with which both countries are equipped, to the mix and you have a situation where the risks of responding to Pakistani terror immensely outweigh the initial costs of that terror.
While Modi had frequently spoken about using force to respond to Pakistan before becoming prime minister, instances of politicians overpromising to get into office are not unknown.
Now that he’s in the chair, it is clear that Modi recognises that force is not an option.
Given this, the challenge for every Union government is one of perception management – something that the Singh government, in hindsight, was not very good at. The Opposition constantly described its response to Pakistan as weak – a charge that was repeated in television news studios and on social media.
Only Nixon could go to China
Modi enjoys a natural advantage over Singh because his image as a hardliner means that the hawks, at least for the time being, can be counted among his supporters and are reluctant to criticise him.
This phenomenon is so widespread in global politics that it even gave birth to a metaphor — “Only Nixon could go to China”, which refers to the ability of a popular politician who is trusted so deeply by his supporters to pull off actions that would otherwise have been sharply attacked.
United States President Richard Nixon, who, like Modi, was a rightwing hawk, took the first steps to normalise relations with China through his path-breaking visit to the country in 1972. At the time, the United States did not even recognise Communist China, something that was hurting its strategic interests.
With anti-Communist sentiment high in the US, dealing with China carried a significant political risk, one that the left liberal Democrats were reluctant to take. Nixon, however, was trusted enough by American hardliners to initiate relations with the East Asian country.
Modi’s hardline support base has also allowed him to push the peace agenda with Pakistan far beyond what Singh could do. It allowed Modi to undertake a surprise visit to Lahore to meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in December, and invite the Pakistani government in March to probe the Pathankot attack. Both moves would have meant bitter criticism had they been carried out by Singh’s government.
To his credit, Prime Minister Modi has also managed the optics of the issue well, guarding his flanks against hardliners. His government made sure to call Pakistan a “terrorist state” at the ongoing United Nation General Assembly without actually treating it like one (which would have meant snapping diplomatic ties).
Media leaks ensure that contemplated punitive action such as review of the Indus Water Treaty for water-sharing between the two countries or Pakistan’s Most Favoured Nation status – that recognises it as a bonafide partner for trade – keeps prime time news boiling.
Of course, Modi would himself never speak of this directly, given that the scrapping the Indus Water Treaty is near impossible. The hollow boast would only embarrass him.
The optics here are relatively easy to manage given that it’s only the English and some sections of the Hindi media that really care about war with Pakistan. As a mass issue, this has little relevance across most states. As the English media beamed the Uri fallout 24X7, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were primarily concerned about sharing the Cauvery river’s waters and Marathas were taking out massive rallies over their socio-economic position in Marathi society.
While terror might make for riveting English or Hindi prime-time television, its electoral impact is yet to be seen. The Congress was criticised by both the media and the Bharatiya Janata Party after the 2008, Mumbai attacks, arguably the most grisly act of terror India has ever seen. But less than 12 months later, not only did the Grand Old Party win the Lok Sabha elections, it actually increased its seat tally in the Maharashtra Assembly polls and come back to power in the state.
Given this lack of electoral relevance, Modi’s strategy to manage messaging and optics rather than chose any real action against Pakistan (either conflict or the snapping of diplomatic ties) is smart politics. The Congress could complain about being treated unfairly – but what it should really be doing is taking notes.