Surgical strikes: What exactly have the Modi govt and BJP done wrong?

In the aftermath of the Uri attacks and India's subsequent response, a powerful narrative — one of the many around India's covert operation across the LoC to degrade Pakistan's terror infrastructure — seeks to place the Indian Army's action within the narrow context of domestic politics.

Worried that the successful offensive against Pakistan may give Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party an electoral boost in the upcoming Assembly polls, an assortment of Indian political leaders — from Arvind Kejriwal, P Chidambaram, Sanjay Nirupam to even Lalu Prasad Yadav's son Tejashwi — have accused the BJP of trying to gain political mileage out of the strike. The political discourse, plumbing new depths every day, slipped several notches further still on Thursday with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi accusing the prime minister of doing 'khoon ki dalaali' with the blood of dead soldiers.

 Surgical strikes: What exactly have the Modi govt and BJP done wrong?

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

While Rahul's comments may be a surgical strike against the Congress' poll prospects, it is consistent with the Opposition's effort to undermine the importance of the operation by making it appear as if cross-border strikes are common place. While the Congress has suddenly remembered all the strikes that happened under its watch, some like Kejriwal have insinuated that the operation may have not happened at all.

It has even been alleged — as Dinesh Unnikrishnan has argued in this article — that the Modi government has frittered away the effectiveness of the covert operation by displaying needless triumphalism or chest-thumping.

Facts, however, say otherwise. Far from displaying triumphalism, the government has shown rare reticence and restraint. It has been wisely reluctant to comment on the surgical strikes, save one deplorable slip from Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. If we take away Parrikar's crude bragging where he compared the prowess of our armed forces to that of the mythical Hanuman, we have precious little from government's key figureheads on one of the most successful covert operations in recent times.

To begin with, the media briefing that followed the surgical strikes was conducted by the DGMO, not a government official, minister or even the army chief.

Lieutenant-General Ranbir Singh's carefully worded statement set the tone. He portrayed the strikes as a preemptive attempt to ensure that further terrorist attacks do not take place, thereby placing the cross-border operation within the legal realm of "self-defence".

As Siddharth Varadarajan writes in The Wire: "Preemptive self-defence is a controversial concept in International Law. Over the years, however, in the context of the US-led war against terrorism, there is hardly any state that can or will criticise India for invoking it."

That done, the DGMO was careful to send out a message that the strikes were aimed at terrorist launch pads, and not the Pakistan Army, although some collateral damage to those trying to "support" the terrorists was inevitable.

The statement, which did not put a figure to casualties except describing it as "significant", was spartan in details and firm in assertion that the strikes have ended. The wording left no space for doubt that India, having sent the message across, is extremely reluctant to put additional pressure on Pakistan and risk more escalation.

Following the briefing held last Thursday (29 September), there has been no further communication from the civil or the military administration. The prime minister has maintained radio silence. Social media is Modi's preferred mode of mass communication. There has not been a single tweet from him so far on the strikes, not even a congratulatory one on the army's role.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has posted three tweets on the subject — all three on the day the operation was carried out. Two of those are on the valour of Indian Army, without being specific, and one on the "successful counter-terrorism operation".

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has posted two tweets on the issue. The tone and tenor of his tweets mirror that of the home minister.

Both the senior ministers in Modi Cabinet have carried forward the theme of fashioning the surgical strikes as a reactionary measure taken in self-defence.

As far as the defence minister is concerned, Modi cut him down to size during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. The prime minister asked ministers, and by implication party members, to avoid bragging about the raids and leave it to authorised spokespersons to speak on the issue, according to a report in The Times of India.

Firstpost had argued on Wednesday why not releasing evidence would be the correct move, but for a government "hungry for political mileage", it would have been far easier to put out evidence of the covert operation, especially in the face of Opposition's "disbelief", Pakistan's continued denial and skepticism from the western media.

The Times of India report, mentioned above, suggests however that the government may not release any evidence. It is understandably apprehensive that sharing of "video footage, photographs and infrared images would compromise operational details, tactics, techniques and equipment used in the strikes to take out the Lashkar-e-Taiba launch pads, at least two of which were co-located with Pakistan army positions, across the Line of Control."

To suggest, therefore, that the government has been indulging in chest-thumping over the strikes requires a masterful spinning of facts.

The second narrative, suggested by some commentators, that the NDA government's handling of surgical ops has been a PR disaster, is equally inaccurate.

Following the ops, global and regional powers have rallied behind India asking Pakistan to dismantle the terror factories. Recent reports indicate Pakistan is facing considerable internal pressure over an obvious global isolation. Dawn, a leading Pakistan daily, has reported fissures between the army and the civilian government. The report reveals how the top echelons of the Pakistani establishment are feeling the pressure of adverse international opinion.

The way BJP's habitual motor-mouths have maintained discretion over the strikes makes it clear that the memo has gone through.

News agency ANI reported on Wednesday that the vice-president of the European Parliament Ryszard Czarnecki, in a signed article published in EP Today, said India’s cross-border action against the terrorists should be "commended and supported by the international community".

The EU figurehead's endorsement of India's actions follow a string of such open pledges of support from the US, Russia, Germany and even Singapore. Most global powers have either backed India or called for restraint, an euphemism for urging Pakistan not to precipitate matters following the strike.

Far from a PR gaffe, the government's deft handling of the diplomatic offensive needs to be praised. So how exactly has the Modi government or the BJP messed up here?

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2016 08:52:24 IST