'Surgical strikes unshackled Indian Army': Nitin Gokhale, strategic analyst and author, on what has changed in last 3 years

Nitin A Gokhale, one of South Asia's leading strategic analysts, is about to release his new book, Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and More, where he analyses India's relations with its friends and adversaries and how the three years of the NDA government have impacted these. A day before the book's official release, he spoke exclusively to Firstpost. Excerpts from the interview:

Nitin Gokhale. Firstpost/Kangkan Acharya

Nitin Gokhale. Firstpost/Kangkan Acharya

The title of the book Securing India the Modi Way suggests that it focuses strictly on how Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dealt with India's security issues. How has his approach differed from his predecessors?

In the last 40 months, India has shown more robustness in terms of its foreign policy and security. India has dealt with China and Pakistan by being resolute on the ground but reasonable in diplomacy. Modi reached out to both nations in his early days in office. His Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif participated in his swearing-in ceremony. We all know what happened after that, how foreign secretary level talks were cancelled.

Similarly, Modi also extended an offer of friendship to China, but Beijing reciprocated. Within four months after Modi took office, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited New Delhi. Before that, he had been to Ahmedabad. However, 1,000-odd Chinese troops were also sent to Chumar.

In the last 15 years, India's reaction to such situations was usually about preventing escalation of tensions. India would have insisted on a diplomatic solution. In fact, even after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, India wouldn't hit back at Pakistan.

But the Modi government chose to deal with the Chinese on the ground. Within two days, India had a counter-force of nearly 9,000 troops to face the intruding Chinese and to stop them from altering status quo. Modi also spoke to Jinping and told him India will always try to be friends and such intrusions are not acceptable. The same resolve was also seen from the Indians over the Doka La stand-off with China.

Furthermore, India is also trying to be proactive by building coalitions with foreign nations. We should just look at how Modi has dealt with the Middle East. There are nearly 70 lakh Indian expatriates living in the Middle East, and their security and welfare had to be ensured. So, the prime minister reached out to the leaders in these regions. Our 'Look East' policy has turned to 'Act East', and very actively so. I also see a lot of differences in the way the Modi government deals with foreign policy and strategic issues from the way previous governments used to. The prime minister also has made an 'India First' approach the cornerstone of his foreign policy, where national interests take priority over everything else. Fears of political consequences did not matter to him while taking strategic decisions.

How did last year's surgical strikes benefit India?

It benefited India in two ways. Firstly, it broke the shackles imposed on the military by earlier regimes that they cannot act against Pakistan. Fear of escalation, an all-out war kept them from taking retaliatory action. They couldn't carry out air strikes. There was always the nuclear question hovering over their heads. This was embedded in the minds of military leaders as well as on ground personnel. As a result, the Indian military was getting into a cantonment mentality in the last one-and-a-half decades. The focus remained on securing all bases and posts. But no matter how much you secure yourself, you will remain vulnerable to attacks by people who are ready to kill themselves.

Secondly, the surgical strikes created a sense of uncertainity in the minds of the Pakistani military leadership. They now wonder what would India's response be if they escalate tensions beyond a point. India's response used to be predictable before. If Pakistan killed Indian soldiers, New Delhi would have come out with a statement criticising this, or sent a dossier, or at most open up artillery fire at the border. It was predictable. But by conducting the surgical strikes, India has created uncertainty. It created another option for India to use.

But even after the surgical strikes, attacks on Indian armed forces have continued.

Though the surgical strikes was publicised as a counter-insurgency operation, their main objective was not to reduce infiltration or attacks. Rather, the objective was to create uncertainty in the minds of Pakistan's armed forces. The infiltrations were unending and the tap couldn't just be turned off. So, through the surgical strikes, India proved it could do something beyond what was expected; it also boosted the morale of the armed forces, sent a message to Pakistan, and of course, reaped the inevitable political advantage any party in power would derive from such a move.

The army chief had recently said that a second surgical strike can take place

If he has said so, then definitely there are such plans in place. No two special forces' operations are similar. They differ in terms of circumstances, methods, targets and objectives. The first round of surgical strikes broke the shackles in the minds of the military leaders, and told them they can utilise this same zeal for a second round as well.

Is aggressive posturing the only approach to deal with the present Pakistan regime? Can any measure for track-two diplomacy be initiated?

I am not aware of track-two diplomacy. But the doors are always open for talks. I am sure there is some kind of engagement between the national security advisors. Aggressive posturing, both in Jammu and Kashmir and on the border with Pakistan, is certainly the central theme for this government. Everything, including trilateral talks and discussions with the Hurriyat, have been tried before, but nothing has worked.

What does the Doka La stand-off say about Indo-China equations? Will this change?

Not in terms of the asymmetry that exists — China is a far superior military power and a much greater economic power. That is not going to change because India is still lagging behind. But what has changed is the mindset that prevented India from taking on China. India has come out the clear winner from the Doka La stand-off. Other smaller nations in the neighbourhood also watched how India dealt with it and came out of it. This should be a matter of concern for China and not for India. I would call Doka La a significant milestone in India-China relationship.

There has long been reluctance on India's part to admit that China has a role to play in the north-eastern insurgency. Do you think it has changed in present regime?

It has not changed. Rather, I would like to say that China would like to resume its activities in the North East because India has become more assertive along the Line of Actual Control. But this danger has always been there. However, China's involvement here isn't the same as Pakistan's in Kashmir. Also, it's very difficult to prove this involvement.

But instead of publicising this, if we know the reality, we should deal with it. We all know that China is a much more powerful adversary than India, both economically and militarily. By confronting China in Doka La and Chumar and exposing China's double standards in terms of membership to the NSG, India is not spoiling for a fight; it's only saying that it cannot be bullied.

In your book, you have mentioned that the Doka La stand-off started long before 26 June. Could you throw light on how China blinked first?

Actually the trouble began on 21 May. I have included a photograph of Chinese and Indian troops standing chin-to-chin on 24 May. But China publicised it on 26 June and timed it with Prime Minister Modi's US visit. This wasn't planned.

India kept quiet about this and came up with a statement four days later, which also had Bhutan's support. India dealt with the problem resolutely at the border. India also had a recourse to diplomacy which it was pursuing anyway. It was the Chinese who came up with the statements accusing India, and it was the Chinese who blinked and resorted to diplomacy, saying they will not disturb status quo. Indian troops, who anyway didn't have any intention of staying back, came back having had their way.

How exactly did the truce come about?

The ice was broken by Prime Minster Modi in the G20 summit held in Germany, when he walked up to Xi Jinping and reportedly asked him why are the two nations going at each other's throats over such a minor issue, at a time when strategic ties are more important. That point on, the issue was taken forward in a diplomatic manner.

I have mentioned in the book that there were at least 38 meetings between the two sides to resolve the issue. India stood firm despite it being a bruising negotiation; it didn't blink and buckle under pressure. There were repeated threats from China but India kept its cool, and this could become a template for the future.

Is this the first time India enjoyed such success in strategic relationships with its neighbours?

No, it is certainly not the first time. There had been such instances for India earlier as well. In 1971, for instance, it created a separate country by making a concerted effort politically and militarily. There was a similar incident in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987, when India stood firm against China. But it is certainly the first instance after the turn of the century. India used to appease China and Pakistan; it signed a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan in 2003 which ended in 2013, but still kept maintaining the pretence that it existed.

OBOR is important for China. Will China abandon it under pressure?

I am not saying India wants China to abandon the 'One Belt One Road' initiative. India is only saying that it will not be a part of it. India is not saying that China should not go ahead with it. India has made its objection clear regarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is said to cross through India's sovereign territory.


Updated Date: Sep 29, 2017 14:26 PM

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