Narendra Modi’s Pakistan doctrine

In dealing with Pakistan henceforth, inaction has been taken off the table of any future prime minister

BV Rao and Ajay Singh March 13, 2019 13:03:45 IST
Narendra Modi’s Pakistan doctrine
  • In the early hours of February 26, India’s Pakistan doctrine underwent a fundamental shift, with the air raids breaching the sovereignty of Pakistan

  • Modi not only acted but framed the need for action in such a way that the international community had no option but to stand by its side

  • Not taking action is no longer an option for any future prime minister

"Pakistan told you we will bleed you with a thousand cuts. So it is not terror from their point of view. It is an agenda that they are fulfilling. They are doing what they believe is the right thing to do. Now, from India’s stand point are we doing the right thing that is good for this nation? That is something we have to decide. Life or death somebody is working for their agenda. What the hell is your agenda? Spell it out and act upon that."

Narendra Modis Pakistan doctrine

Narendra Modi. Illustration: Shatakshi

That was Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev at News18’s Second India Rising Summit on February 25 succinctly and unemotionally pointing out the two key missing ingredients of India’s Pakistan policy: resolve and action. Pakistan had resolved to wage a perpetual war. Where and what was India’s resolve? And, was there enough steel in the leadership to back up resolve with action?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the podium about two hours after Sadhguru at the same Summit. When he exited at 9.30 pm after a 40-minute key note address, he had not mentioned Pakistan or Pulwama even once. Sadhguru did not get his answers. But in Modi’s mind there was a time and place for answers. The time was precisely six hours later and the place was Balakot, deep inside Pakistan, where Indian Air Force jets bombed the terror training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Ten days earlier (February 15), after the deadly Pulwama attack, Modi had told the nation that Pakistan had made a grave mistake and it would have to pay a heavy price for it (“bahut badi galti kar chuka hai, aur bahut badi keemat chukani padegi”). There was a touch of the menacing in the stress he laid on “kar chuka hai”. It suggested a new resolve and intent for action. But, programmed to hearing prime ministers dish out such stuff over the decades, it didn’t strike as much more than regulation rhetoric.

Pakistan showed empty craters, IAF claimed it achieved its mission, and BJP president Amit Shah claimed 250 terrorists had been neutralised. These arguments, which will rule the headlines till the last vote is cast this May, cannot, however, obfuscate one inalienable fact. In the wee hours of February 26 India’s Pakistan doctrine underwent a fundamental shift. In those few minutes of air raids India breached the sovereignty of Pakistan for the first time during non-war scenario. It dumped the decades-old formula of indignation-condemnation-consternation-confabulation, all of which added up to nothing but glorious inaction.

The peace detour

It is no surprise that Narendra Modi is in South Block when the shift happened from a doctrine of helpless inaction to measured action. What is surprising is why it took so long for a presumed Pakistan hawk to risk all-out war only in the dying weeks of his term. The easy, facile answer is that it is an election gimmick planned to stoke patriotic fervour. Risking war so as not to risk losing an election is a very cheap charge against any leader. In Modi’s case it does not stick for three reasons.

One, a thorough scan of all his public speeches for one month before the Pulwama attack is instructive. Modi had not uttered the word Pakistan even once. The recurring theme of all twelve speeches (available on www.narendramodi.in) is development, development and more development. Once (February 3) when he was in Kashmir he spoke about breaking the back of terrorism. Even here he did not name Pakistan. If he was building war hysteria, he was doing so in vacuum. Two, the bombing of CRPF was a grave external provocation. Unless one were Mamata Banerjee, one would not ask the absurd question of why the JeM was gift-wrapping the election for Modi. Masood Azhar’s intention was to weaken Modi not strengthen. To hit him at a time when he wouldn’t be able to mount a full response as a lame duck government. Three, and the most important, is the government’s calibrated response that would stand the test of international scrutiny as a fair step in self-defence (more on this strategy later).

Clearly, Modi, the hawk, was missing in action. His “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” (I’ll hit you inside your house) remark in Ahmedabad drew a lot of criticism but that was political demagogy at its best (or worst) akin to Richard Armitage’s “we will bomb you to stone age” warning to Parvez Musharraf after 9/11. Modi’s hard-nosed stand against Pakistan took time coming because he had to first exhaust all options for peace in light of the “war-monger” perception of him. Aware that Pakistan would figure centrally in his diplomacy and politics, he got down to work even before he began his term by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration in May 2014.

He struck an instant personal chord with Sharif. The Pakistan deep state would not take kindly to their prime minister cosying up to his Indian counterpart, so Modi gave Sharif the long rope he needed to mend relations. He threw the diplomatic bluebook to the winds and made an unscheduled stop-over in Lahore to honour Sharif’s invitation for his grand-daughter’s marriage on December 25, 2015. He was rewarded, on January 2, 2016, with the attack on the Pathankot airbase. Modi took this hit in his chin because Sharif personally conveyed his anguish and assured action. “Give me some time,” he is believed to have told Modi. Sharif got much more than a little time. Risking considerable damage to his image at home, Modi gave a Pakistani team of investigators limited access to the airbase. Predictably, nothing came out of the visit except bad press for Modi.

It didn’t take long for Sharif to start singing the Pakistan Army tune. After calling for UN intervention in Kashmir, Sharif followed it up with an open exhortation for insurrection in Kashmir in the wake of terror poster-boy Burhan Vani’s killing (July 2018). Two months later, JeM militants attacked the Uri headquarters of the Indian Army killing 19 soldiers, the deadliest attack on a military establishment yet.

Working with the world

Now the gloves were off. India replied within 12 days by launching surgical strikes to hit terror launch pads on the other side of the LoC and called off all talks. Though there is still no agreement on how successful the strikes were or if they were indeed one of their kind, the swift action and its public announcement added to brand Modi as the decisive leader.

Pakistan ratcheted up its terror activities in Kashmir culminating in the Pulwama attack. That was a big miscalculation. Pakistan would always get away after every hit on India by showing the world how close its finger was to the nuclear button. This would scare the world which would lean on India to grin and bear and get on. But Modi had re-set India’s role as an important — and equal — global player without much notice from Pakistan.

It would have been instructive for Pakistan to study the evolution of India-China relations which seem to have found an equilibrium in the past four years after a wobbly start. Chinese troops had intruded into Ladakh at precisely the same time when Modi was hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad. Discarding diplomatese, Modi confronted Xi: “Why is it that most of the time these incursions happen during high profile visits to each others’ countries?”

Questioning China was not the norm for Indian leaders as this anecdote narrated by a former ITBP chief reveals. He was making a presentation on border security to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Home Minister LK Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes at Leh. When he came to the part where he wanted to talk about the sensitive matter of infrastructure development by China on the border, he was shut down before he began. “Let’s leave China out,” he was firmly told. Modi showed his mettle again during the 71-day Doka La stand-off in 2017, the longest and most tense yet. In spite of threats of war and annihilation by China, Indian soldiers stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chinese in a display of diplomatic nerve never seen before.

That Modi was gaining equity as a global leader should have been clear to Pakistan from its own experience. To global powers India-Pakistan was one issue. They would come to India via Pakistan or go to Pakistan after a visit to India. “Modi personally insisted that they de-hyphenate the two countries. And since then all global leaders from China, USA, Europe or other countries travel separately to India. Last month the Saudi crown prince flew back home from Pakistan before leaving for India the next day,” said a top bureaucrat in the PMO. From a self-confessed novice to international diplomacy, Modi grew to be a respected leader capable of representing India’s interests to the fullest.

Evolution of a strategist

Pakistan apparently missed this evolution of Modi and his personal equation with world leaders. Immediately after the Pulwama attack, Modi let the world know that India would hit back hard. But it was a strategic nightmare to deliver what the country wanted him to do, a strike more spectacular than the surgical strikes of 2018. He needed to cross a new red line. Do something to demonstrate India’s new resolve for action while not giving up its stature as a responsible nation unaccustomed to reckless war-mongering. He needed to a clean break from the past and yet show a fine balance between aggression and restraint.

India’s Pakistan strategy based on worst case scenarios was so impeccable that it paralysed the leadership. Pakistan would keep delivering blows and India would keep postponing action for another day.

Modi not only acted but framed the need for action in such a way that the international community had no option but to stand on India's side. The definition of the strikes as “intelligence-led non-military” action to pre-empt more strikes from JeM’s terror factories — because Pakistan itself was doing nothing to dismantle the same — worked to India’s favour. It conveyed to the world that while India was ready for full blown war, it was still holding its hand. It also cleverly constricted Pakistan’s space for retaliation because there were no terror facilities in India for the latter to target. If Pakistan struck it would be military or strategic installations and that would be a clear act of war.

The world, including China, rallied around India. Pakistan did strike back, dropping bombs here and there on Indian territory. Technically it was war on February 27 when India and Pakistan shot each other’s planes down but thankfully de-escalated quickly. All of those Modi world tours, for which he took a lot of flak domestically, were obviously not for nothing.

For Modi it was mission accomplished. He had delivered many messages in one go. Pakistan now knows India would not hold back anymore. Every plan of Pakistan-sponsored terror will have to take on board a new threat: how will India hit back. It spikes up their costs of war. To the world he sent the message that India could look after itself. Domestically he has underscored his image as a strong leader and a responsible decision-maker who will not seek war but will not duck it either. This small anecdote highlights this aptly: At an informal meeting with Modi, a senior leader of the party expressed concern that all this was happening in the run-up to the election. “Modi,” a top source told us, “became very serious and said: Dus chunaav aayenge jaayenge, humein dekhna hai ki desh bachche…humne decide karliya humko kya karna hai (elections will come and go, but the Nation needs to be survive, I have decided what needs to be done).”

All this has an impact on India far beyond the immediate elections. An option exercised — striking terror camps inside Pakistan — is an option expended. In the military sense once a card is played, the adversary is alerted to it so it is useless in future. For example, after the Uri attack, India surprised Pakistan with its surgical strikes across the LoC. But post-Pulwama, that was not an option because Pakistan would be ready for it. And politically, it sets the bar of public expectations that much higher. Surgical strikes was par for course then. But post-Pulwama surgical strikes were not an option even for the lay citizen.

Managing this conjoined contradiction — of shrinking military options and growing public expectations — will be a strategic nightmare for the new government in 2019 and later. But this is much crystal clear. As long as terrorism remains the state policy of Pakistan, helplessness cannot be the state policy of India anymore. Not taking action is no longer an option for any future prime minister. “What can India do” will have to replace “who can India complain to”.

And that, if you will, is our new Pakistan doctrine. The Modi doctrine.

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