Uri terror attack: Modi's biggest headache isn't Pakistan, but an enraged Indian public

Forget Uri attacks, diplomatic offensive at the UN General Assembly to isolate Pakistan or chalking out the modalities of a "befitting reply" to Rawalpindi for its continuous acts of terror against the Indian state. The Narendra Modi government's biggest headache right now is managing domestic expectations.

As the Prime Minister finds out to his discomfiture, there is a sea of difference between passing jumla while in the Opposition and taking credible action during an hour of crisis as the head of the State.

The fidayeen strike on Indian soldiers at the Army headquarters in Uri has resulted in an enraged nation setting asides its myriad differences and clamouring for nothing less than a comprehensive military strike against the repeat offenders. So far under Modi's watch, as Brahma Chellaney reminds us in Livemint, Pakistan has initiated a string of attacks against India including major ones at Gurdaspur, Udhampur, Pathankot and Pampore.

Soldier outside the army camp which was attacked in Uri. PTI

Soldier outside the army camp which was attacked in Uri. PTI

There have been no lessons learnt from any of these attacks with the Modi government alternating between bhashanbaazi, outraged indignation and sari diplomacy when it comes to its Pakistan policy. Pathankot remains a festering wound with its crippling intelligence failures, bumbling up in gathering of evidence and the ridiculous step to invite Pakistan at our airbase to "probe" the crime which it had itself perpetrated.

Patience is running low with the government showing little signs of a hardline approach against the rogue nation for fomenting habitual cross-border terror — which it had promised while sweeping to power in 2014 — and relying on empty rhetoric, a series of never-ending "high-level" meetings and a scaling up of diplomatic offensive.

Firstpost has argued here and here why economic sanctions and call for global ostracisation have never worked in the past, nor these will ever deter Pakistan from using terrorism as state policy.

Simple point is, for the Pakistan army generals and deep state, terrorism remains the most fruitful option that brings twin benefits. It ensures a never-ending line of credit from Washington and keeps India bleeding from a thousand cuts. The ISI and the Pakistan army would be utter fools to let go of what Prakash Nanda calls "hybrid war" against India, in his piece for Firstpost.

Pakistan's dependence on terrorism to wage an asymmetric war against its enemies (which largely translates to India) has been explained most succinctly by Georgetown University Professor and author C Christine Fair. In an article titled A New Way of Engaging Pakistan, she writes: "Terrorism under its (Pakistan's) nuclear umbrella is cheap and effective. It has an army that cannot win a war (except against its own civilians) and nuclear weapons it cannot use. Its Islamist terrorist proxies are the most effective tool it has to achieve its interests in Afghanistan and India… Taken together, Pakistan has benefited from a simple moral hazard: The US rewards Pakistan for the very behaviours it seeks to curb… Pakistan faces no incentive to behave differently."

There have been instances in the past when coalition compulsions have tied the hands of prime ministers from taking hard-nosed decisions. Modi suffers no such compunctions. He has an unprecedented mandate to take firm action against an unstable state that only understands the language of violence. Not only did he rise to power riding such a promise, recent opinion polls show that were he to initiate a military strike against Pakistan, Indians would remain firmly by his side.

The much-discussed PEW Research Center poll proves that Modi remains India's most popular leader by far, with an important caveat — the public is disillusioned with his blow-hot, blow-cold inconsistent Pakistan policy. The survey, conducted among 2,464 respondents in India from 7 April to 24 May, 2016, finds people are unimpressed with Modi's managing of relationship with Pakistan. Allied with this demand for a more muscular approach, the survey also finds a majority favouring military action to solve the menace of terrorism and approves of a higher spending in defence.

It is important to remember that Indians were in favour of military action against terror-perpetrators before the Uri attack took place. Post Uri, as The Times of India online poll finds, two in three respondents feel India must hit back at Pakistan with all the military might at its disposal. Only a quarter of those took part agreed with the idea of building up international pressure and isolating Pakistan for its continued support for terrorism.

Taken together, it means Indians are angry at being at the receiving end of Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks that have resulted in high cost of human capital and would like their prime minister to strike hard at the rogue state instead of wasting time with "diplomatic offensives".

With public opinion firmly behind him, even goading him for a military solution, why is Modi shying away from launching surgical strikes against Pakistan?

The answer is unflattering and severely dents India's pride.

It appears that the Indian Army is ill-prepared to launch an offensive against Pakistan. As Manoj Joshi writes in a piece for Observer Research Foundation in an article titled Uri attack: There are no military options that will give India the outcome it wants, "Proponents of the military strategy must also be aware of the fact that the Indian armed forces are not in particularly good shape for an all out war with Pakistan. The military is short of vital equipment like artillery and air-defence systems, as well as key ammunition. The Air Force is also not in particularly great form given the steady attrition it has faced without getting adequate replacements."

We have been told since the Uri attack that that all options, including military ones, are at the table but crucially, as The Times of India reported on Monday, the government has decided not to press the 'action' button, settling instead for "diplomatically isolating Pakistan on international stage," as decided during a "high-level" meeting chaired by the PM.

If not a deep surgical strike or a hot pursuit to dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, surely India can inflict low-risk controlled aggression and covert ops across LoC?

Here, too, it turns out that Army chiefs have advised the PM against taking immediate military strikes. As Praveen Swami writes in The Indian Express, "Top military commanders (have) warned that Pakistan’s army had raised its defensive posture along the Line of Control (LoC)." Army chief reportedly based his advice on inputs that "Pakistan had used the time since the Sunday morning strike in Uri to fortify its positions, making a counter-attack risky."

So in absence of a military op, all India can do is to lead a campaign for declaring Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror and calling for its global isolation. Since these are unlikely to bring any result, let's wait for the next terror attack to take place.

Updated Date: Sep 21, 2016 07:30 AM

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