The discussion around Narendra Modi's Dussehra speech has expectedly revolved around two related pressure points. One, whether the Prime Minister was "owning" a military offensive for political gains from a religious podium in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. Two, whether in uttering 'Jai Jai Shri Ram' at the end of his address he signaled a deviation from his development plank to a return to BJP's core Hindutva agenda.
To take up the first point, let us ascribe the context. Whether or not the surgical strikes across LoC will discourage Pakistan to use terrorism as a state policy remains to be seen. Though a terror-ravaged world is increasingly sympathetic to India, it does not automatically follow that Pakistan will face crippling economic sanctions or even be designated as a state sponsor of terror. Foreign policies are built on the bedrock of mutual interest, not ethics or morality.
Hence Pakistan will not let go of the cheap leverage against India unless the cost of pursuing such a strategy becomes less rewarding. For that to happen, many extraneous factors must fall in place. Not the least among them is India's resolve to stay the course. For the new, aggressive counter-terrorism policy to even moderately succeed, the government of the day must show political will and tenacity to fight the good fight.
Inherent in this question is the assumption that at the end of the day, it is the government at the Centre that must decide the course of action. The Army might be ready and even chomping at the bits but the green signal must come from the Prime Minister.
Speaking at an event in Navi Mumbai on Wednesday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar wasn't far from the truth when he said: "Credit goes to our armed forces, but the Prime Minister's decision-making and planning also deserve major credit."
For better or worse, the decision to send the special forces across LoC to destroy terror launch pads was the PM's. If it had gone horribly wrong resulting in major casualties for our armed forces or an escalation of hostilities between two nuclear-armed nations, Modi would have been roasted over domestic and international fire.
By owning a covert operation, a major deviation from UPA's policy of 'strategic restraint' (if we take their claims over similar strikes seriously), Modi also took a huge gamble.
Clandestine strikes like the one carried out by the army on 29 September are rarely acknowledged because they are aimed at a specific purpose. When that purpose is met, there is space for plausible deniability. Modi's move to go public with it and sharing information with the Pakistan Army, therefore, was as much a strategic decision as a political one.
Strategically, the acknowledgement was a memo to global powers in general and Pakistan in particular that India henceforth cannot be expected to suffer in silence. Politically, it was a message to voters of his 'iron will', a shtick that he rode to power in 2014. Modi was living up to that promise. If the Prime Minister was strong-willed enough to order a strike, resolute enough to own it, it's only fair that the fallout (if any) or capital (thus accrued) should be credited to his account. When US Navy Seals took down Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, it wasn't George W Bush who was feted for it.
Modi's political rivals have an unenviable task. Congress, for instance, can't decide whether to blame Modi for 'khoon ki dalali' or claim belated credit for what it asserts were similar operations in the past. Both SP and BSP have blamed Modi for running away with credit that they claim are due only to the army.
"The pyre of jawans who lost their lives in the Uri attack has not yet died down, but the Prime Minister is coming to Lucknow to celebrate Dussehra for his political motives," BSP chief Mayawati said recently at a rally.
SP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia told ANI that Modi's Lucknow visit "is nothing but opportunistic politics only for the sake of votes." The comments are an open acknowledgement of Modi's renewed political capital post-Uri and their own insecurity at not being able to do anything about it.
Modi's speech at Aishbagh maidan was a study in the art of political messaging. He steered clear of referring to surgical strikes or taking Pakistan's name but by using Ravana to denote terrorism and stressing on the need to triumph over those who harbor him, he said all that needed to be said. He was not politicizing the surgical strike beyond the point that it already has been the moment details were made public. Modi can hardly be blamed for being the master communicator that he is.
The second point, on whether Modi is signaling a return to BJP's core agenda, is equally interesting. As Ajay Singh writes in Firstpost: "…there was a marked difference in war cry of 'Jai Sri Ram' of LK Advani’s time and Modi’s chanting of the same words in a different context."
If Modi was pandering to his core Hindutva agenda and sending a not-so-subtle message to BJP and RSS cadres ahead of what promises to be a tough fight in the Hindi heartland, he took care to mask it well.
He used all the props at disposal — Hanuman's gadaa, Krishna's sudarshan chakra and used characters from Ramayana on a Ram Leela event to send multiple messages of social inclusiveness, the need to stand guard against terrorism, save the girl child, strive for a cleaner and corruption-free India and remain united in the face of provocation. In effect, while urging us to triumph over inner Ravanas and social evils, the address to Hindutva sentiment was clear.
But it was done in such a way that much like the surgical strikes, the purpose was met and yet there was enough space for plausible deniability. There was no triumphalism, unlike some of his party peers, but he still managed to set the stage for BJP's poll campaign. It was a commanding performance from an orator at the top of his game.