Narendra Modi is talking tough on Pulwama, but rhetoric may backfire if retaliation isn’t timely or spectacular

Sunday evenings in Kolkata offer some respite from traffic snarls, but 17 February was an exception. The entire city was rocked by waves after waves of candlelight marches that clogged arterial roads, causing temporary snafus. Though the TMC had taken out a mega procession on Saturday in remembrance of the Pulwama attack martyrs, the ones on Sunday were mostly spontaneous, apolitical ones taken out by civilians carrying a variety of placards with just one common theme – anger against Pakistan. Kolkata wasn’t an exception. This scene was replicated across the country.

To a certain extent, these organic protests reflect two things – rage against Pakistan and a sense of frustration with the Indian leadership for failing to force a change in the recalcitrant nation’s behaviour. People are tired of being at the receiving end of terror strikes and patience on the ground is wearing thin. The issue of terrorism binds a diverse nation, and animosity towards Pakistan, the country that poses India’s biggest national security challenge through its sub-conventional war and use of terror as a foreign policy tool, is on the rise in India.

A PEW Research Center survey on the India-Pakistan relationship, the results of which were published in December 2017, found that “72 percent Indians see Pakistan unfavourably.” Among these, “almost two-thirds (64 percent) have a very unfavorable view of Pakistan, the highest level recorded since Pew began measuring in 2013. This dislike cuts across party lines.” The survey also found that only 21 percent Indians approve of Narendra Modi’s handling relations with Pakistan.

Narendra Modi is talking tough on Pulwama, but rhetoric may backfire if retaliation isn’t timely or spectacular

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a gathering at Hazaribagh on Sunday. PTI

It is needless to say that if this survey was done in the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks, it would have reflected an even greater souring of mood among the Indians. The level of pressure on the prime minister, therefore, is evident. It is admittedly greater because of the timing and nature of the attack. Armed forces occupy an exalted position in public imagination. The scale and devastation of the terror strike has caused an outrage comparable to that of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The fallout in the election campaign is inevitable and deep, and all political parties are therefore approaching the subject with a degree of caution.

Modi doesn’t have that luxury. If adversity of public opinion represents one facet of the pressure on the prime minister to act, the second pressure point (that could have an even greater bearing on his decision-making) has arisen from the way he has responded to public anger over the Pulwama massacre.

The motivation behind Modi’s rhetoric is not difficult to understand. Political leaders must necessarily allay public anger in matters of national security (and so-called ‘strong leaders’ have even greater obligation to do so), but quite often, threats of action, incendiary rhetoric and extreme positions tie the hands of leaders in such a way that the choice before the leader is either spectacular coercive action or a loss of credibility. To add to Modi’s difficulty, the "retaliation" in the case of Pulwama must be several degrees higher than the "surgical strikes" post Uri.

Post Pulwama, Modi has, on several occasions, warned Pakistan of a “befitting, jaw-breaking response”, alerted Islamabad that the blood of the Indians is boiling and it will “pay a heavy price” for its act of terrorism and with a touch of ominous foreboding: “army has been given complete freedom to act”.

During a rally in Bihar on Sunday Modi said: “to the people who have gathered here, I would like to say that the fire that is raging in your bosoms is in my heart too” and promised that the sacrifice of the jawans “will not go in vain”. Modi’s cabinet colleagues have said Pakistan will get an “unforgettable lesson,” while allies have called for “avenging every drop of blood.”

These threats of action and incendiary rhetoric are meant to assuage public anger by replacing actions with words, but the downside of this tactic is that it creates its own pressure model that some international relations theorists call “audience cost”. If Modi fails to act, or if his actions do not match the level of retaliation that he has promised, then he may suffer a loss of credibility and be punished in the elections. This is also the reason why the Congress-led Opposition has largely rallied behind the government. On the one hand, it sends a message of solidarity and amity, and on the other, it creates space for the Opposition to highlight the gap between the government’s promise and action.

In shifting the onus of action on security forces, Modi has bought some valuable time and deflected a bit of the pressure, but the ultimate accountability (and that too, just ahead of the elections) rests on his shoulders. Modi may pay the price for issuing explicit threats if he cannot match words with actions, but the cost of not issuing such threats at this juncture would have been even greater.

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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 16:16:18 IST

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