Uri terror attack: Fate of PM Narendra Modi's 'strong leader' image lies in his response

This is testing time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the toughest in his two-and-half years rule at the Centre. His response to Pakistan-backed terror attack on the Indian Army brigade headquarters at Uri, which comes in close succession to the attack on the Indian Air Force base station at Pathankot, will decide whether he should be taken as a strong and decisive leader or his 'chhapan inch ki chhati' would be lampooned.

He has often been equated with the late prime minister Indira Gandhi but so far that comparison and contrast was in terms of popularity, reach and making the party win elections on personal charisma in states where its organisational base was not strong. Despite her failings on several counts, Indira was called Durga as she took the call of militarily engaging with Pakistan and winning it decisively. It's a different matter though that India lost its gain over Pakistan in the Shimla Accord. However, Indira is considered to be one of the strongest Indian leaders.

The test is not only for Modi but also for his number two in the government and for the BJP and the RSS to prove that they meant what they said in the run-up to 2014 parliamentary elections. But all eyes are on Modi.

An Indian Army soldier during the Uri attack. PTI

An Indian Army soldier during the Uri attack. PTI

After all, India had overwhelmingly and decisively voted for Modi, the first single party majority government in the last 30 years. He was not called Chhote Sardar (after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel) by his supporters for nothing. A majority of his supporters saw in him a mix of Vikas Purush (development man) and Loh Purush (iron man). It's time for Modi to meet their expectations.

The current national mood — after a series of backstabs and terror attacks by Pakistan, most recently Pathankot and Uri and fomenting trouble in Kashmir Valley — is of assertive nationalism.

That prevalent national mood is best reflected by the manner in which a 2.10-minute video of a BSP jawan reciting a patriotic poem inside a bus full of his other jawans went viral on social media. "Jakar Bata Do pakistanion ko....hum darte nahi atom bombo se, visfotak poto se hum darte hai to Shimla, Tashkant jaise samjhuaton se....Kashmir to hoga par Pakistan nahi hoga.....". The other jawans shouting in chorus Pakistan nahi hoga. This has an inherent message for the political ruling class, don't make us sacrifice and then concede the gains for a farcical truce with Pakistan. Wage a decisive war against this troublesome neighbour.

The BJP national general secretary's Facebook post is also interesting as it comes from someone higher up in ruling echelon: "The Prime Minister has promised that those behind the Uri terror attack will not go unpunished. That should be the way forward. For one tooth, the complete jaw. Days of so-called strategic restraint are over. If terrorism is the instrument of the weak and coward, restraint in the face of repeated terror attacks betrays inefficiency and incompetence. India should prove otherwise."

The theme cuts both ways — it is both an asset as well as a challenge — from within the party-Parivar ranks and outside. This means that gone is the Vajpayee era, the spin doctors singing virtues of "coercive diplomacy" for cornering Pakistan and making President Pervez Musharraf yield that Pakistan soil would not be allowed to be used for terror activity.

Uri and Pathankot attack mean attack on the Indian state, just as attack on Parliament on 13 December, 2001 meant attack on the Indian state. It demands retaliatory action from the Indian state, otherwise the Indian state will always be called a 'soft state', always looking for other countries like the US to take up its cause. India and its people have seen that enough and is no longer in the mood to consider that as a viable option. Coercive diplomacy is good only if it is accompanied with military option.

Modi should take some lessons from Vajpayee's failure. After 2001 Parliament attack, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had famously said "ab aar par ki ladai hogi" (a final and decisive battle would be waged now) and Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved Operation Parakram — massive combat troops mobilisation on the western borders. After cancelling leave of all officers and jawans and having an eyeball to eyeball mobilisation along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border in Punjab, Rajasthan and elsewhere, Operation Parakram ended in mid-October 2002 with CCS taking a decision to call off mobilisation and making a face-saving statement that troops would now be strategically redeployed.

Vajpayee in Parliament played with his own words, claiming that he had never said 'ab aar par ki ladai hogi', instead he had said 'agar ladai hui toh aar par ki ladai hogi'. Vajpayee and his men thought that by doing verbal gymnastics they had been able to convince people. The results of 2004 parliamentary elections proved that people of India never forgave them. Remember Vajpayee had won 1999 election post the victory in Kargil war.

Also, the eventual capitulation of Vajpayee and his men under international pressure made Indira's position distinct from other leaders. In 1971, she not only won the war, but liberated East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

This time around Modi is talking about the liberation of Balochistan.

Consider Modi's position. Two distinct things have happened since after Uri attack — first, consider the tweets: Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished."

Home Minister Rajnath Singh: "My heartfelt condolences to the families of the martyred soldiers. Those behind this terror incident would be brought to justice." In another tweet he names Pakistan: "I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan's continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups."

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley: "Perpetrators of Uri terror attack shall be punished. My thoughts & prayers are with families of our soldiers injured & martyred."

All three top leaders in the government assured that the sacrifice of soldiers will be avenged. The Indian Army and the Home Minister have named Pakistani establishment and terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad as the ones behind these attacks.

Now the question is: Is there any other way other than going for military option whatever one may call hot pursuit or surgical exercise or risking full-scale war to punish "those behind the attack"? More so, if that option will have to be exercised, then it has to be exercised before the next possible attack. Remember, surprise factor is generally an advantage on terrorist and their backers side.

If Modi government fails to do so, or seem to be taking any other effective and tangible measure then all the words used in the tweets would be taken as empty rhetoric and people would not forgive Modi and the BJP. The popular perception is, if Modi can't do, no one else will ever do it. Modi has the popular mandate and the image to do it. If he fails to do it then he not only fails himself, but also the entire nation.

Second, for the first time ever, the government has released pictures of those attending high-level meetings chaired by prime minister and home minister with top ministers and security and intelligence officials. There have also been leakages that the army was seeking the use of military option. The idea is to assure people that the government was seriously reviewing its options. But then there is no structured meeting of CCS yet.

It is for Modi to decide whether he would stand true to the image he so consciously cultivated for over a decade.

Updated Date: Sep 19, 2016 20:47 PM

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