We all know the ancient story about a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant, the cross-cultural parable that finds resonance in several religious traditions and has often been cited by gurus to provide lessons on confirmation bias, perceptive reality or the need for syncretism in beliefs. The Prime Minister's twin addresses to the nation in the aftermath of the Uri attacks — one from the party pulpit at Kozhikode and Mann Ki Baat the morning after — have made his critics and backers appear as the blind men of the antediluvian fable.
Unless Narendra Modi closely follows what Sun Tzu had written in The Art of War: "The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent," and seeks to befuddle Pakistan with masterful usage of "strategic confusion", his double monologues have revealed no clarity of thought in tackling terrorism, glimpse of a roadmap to tackle Pakistan's subversive agenda, or even a clear endorsement of diplomatic initiative which increasingly looks to be his preferred choice.
One doesn't know what effect his speeches would have on the Rawalpindi generals plotting their next terror move but Modi has successfully sown the seeds of bewilderment among his supporters and detractors alike, exposing their confirmation bias and even making them swap their positions.
Shortly after the twin speeches, a curious shift was on display in the thought process of so-called liberal commentators, many of whom have been Modi's most vocal critics and have rarely found anything positive to say about a leader who rose to power backed by an overwhelming mandate and still largely retains that wild popularity.
Members of this camp have suddenly found in Modi a champion rationalist who has masterfully shifted the rhetoric away from military offensive against Pakistan into a competitive war with that nation against poverty. To these opinion-makers, Modi has indicated a foreclosure of all surgical strikes, succeeded in calming down his "war mongering, blood-lusting rabid supporters" and made them see the benefits of strategic restraint in a way only he could have.
When Modi said in Kozhikode: "We are exporting software all over the world, whereas Pakistan is exporting terrorists in entire world… I want to tell Pak people; India is ready to fight you. If you have strength, come forward to fight against poverty. Let’s see who wins? who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India?" it was interpreted by this group as a clear signal of Prime Minister changing the rules of the game.
If that means absorbing a few more terror blows from the rogue neighbours and swallowing our collective pride, so be it.
They claim that 'Prime Minister Modi' has understood what 'chief minister Modi' couldn't — that "growth" is more important than responding to Pakistan's cynical provocations and relentless attempts to kill our civilians, soldiers and incite unrest in our borders.
Crucially, though Modi delivered no clear message on whether this is the path he indeed intends to take, he seems to have magically transformed his bitter critics into lukewarm appreciators. A no mean feat.
And yet to his backers who desire a more tangible response to Pakistan's perfidies, Modi's deliberately ambiguous message has left the door open for all sorts of actions. Many of this group felt that the Prime Minister has not foreclosed anything and has dropped enough hints to indicate that even a military intervention is possible.
In Modi's words "Pakistan’s rulers should know that the sacrifice of our 18 soldiers will not go to waste… Terrorist should listen that India will never forget…" this camp saw a barely veiled threat to Pakistan's establishment.
— ANI (@ANI_news) September 24, 2016
If the BJP cadres present at the meeting on Saturday night hankered for a macho response, Modi gave it to them.
"In the last few months, there have been at least 17 incidents of infiltration by Fidayeen terrorists, it claimed 110 lives, but our security forces managed to stop them at the border. Our armed forces… have been on the winning side of this battle to protect us. That is because of the morale of its people, and right now the morale of India is sky high and provides strength to the valour of our fighting men".
And in words that could either be interpreted as a harmless taunt or a venomous tilt at a new aggressive foreign policy, Modi said: "I want the people of Pakistan to ask their leaders about the fact that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is with you, why haven't you been able to handle it? What about Pakhtunistan, you haven't been able to handle it; there are insurrections against the government in Gilgit Baltistan and Baluchistan, you haven't been able to handle it. Once, Bangladesh was part of your country, you couldn't handle it. Please handle your own home rather than look across the border."
When he said: "That day is not far when the people of Pakistan will come out on the streets to force their leaders to fight against terrorism", it was taken as a clever attempt to address the fault-lines of a state where elected governments are puppets at the hands of Rawalpindi generals.
He carried this theme of aggression further during Sunday's Mann Ki Baat speech.
"There is a lot of value to the anger that people of the country have. This is a symbol of the country's awakening. This anger is of the kind of 'do something'... When 1965 war (with Pakistan) broke out and Lal Bahadur Shastri was leading the country, similar was the feeling, anger in the country. There was fever of nationalism…"
So does Modi remain a hardliner, or is he a newbie peacenik? Is he a vengeful general determined to teach Pakistan a lesson, or a dove in the guise of an eagle who is ready to take more than a few terror blows but not ready to let India be derailed from the path of development?
Neither. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Modi remains a master communicator and a hardcore pragmatist above all ideological moorings. He doesn’t shy away from reinventing himself if the situation so demands. Right now as a leader trying to walk a tightrope between the rhetoric of his past and the handicap of his present, Modi is a bit of everything to everyone.
He understands the popular demand for a military intervention against the rogue state that only understands the language of violence, yet fears the risks in SWOT analysis. And he is acutely aware that his own political capital, however impregnable may it appear, will be severely dented if he comes to be perceived as an "effete leader" in the wake of Uri.
So what does he do? He cannot appear to give total commitment to any of his perceived tactics. So while he may appear to be favouring "strategic restraint", he also drops large hints on counter-offensive tactic. It may look as if he wants to wage war only against "poverty, malnutrition, joblessness, illiteracy", yet he also draws references to 1965.
Modi would rather use obfuscation and confusion as tools not to keep Pakistan on tenterhooks — because it is difficult to preempt what that failed state will do next — but to tide over the greatest threat to his political career that Uri has brought. There will be time yet to engage with Pakistan.