Ghar mein ghus ke marenge (We will hit you right inside your own home),” prime minister Narendra Modi thundered, when he addressed a meeting at the civil hospital in Ahmedabad on March 4.
He paused before finally delivering this one-liner with an elan that conveyed that patience was exhausted. That he chose the civil hospital, where a bomb blast targeted injured victims of other blasts in Ahmedabad in July 2008, to send this stern message was also significant. He neither forgets nor lets others forget the 21 explosions that rocked the whole city in a single day.
There may be a debate on choice of words. Modi himself did not seem at ease in delivering those words. But these words expressed in unambiguous terms India’s frustration at Pakistan’s proxy war by instigating terrorist attacks here. The idiomatic phrase of Hindi-Urdu parlance would resonate with the intended audience on either side of the border.
The words were reminiscent of the then US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage’s stern warning to Pervez Musharraf in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack, “We will bomb you to the stone age”, unless Pakistan mended its ways and cooperated in the American anti-terror operation in Afghanistan.
But then, India is not the US whose second-rung officials carry enough weight to tell an erring nation to behave.
There is no doubt that since February 14 when 40 CRPF constables were killed in Pulwama in a suicide bombing, Modi was quite upset. He gave a clear indication to the international community that India would have no option but to retaliate against terrorists and their sponsors in Pakistan’s ‘deep state’, its army. Those working closely with him confirm that Modi was not much at ease till February 26 when the Indian air force fighter planes struck Balakot to avenge the Pulwama killings. The quick retaliation by Pakistan a day later and the capture of India’s wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman across the border gave certain uneasy moments and the threat of the subcontinent snowballing towards a full-fledged war became distinct. Yet Modi gave signs of not scaling up the crisis when his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, agreed to release the pilot as a peace gesture. But not before Modi registered a new resolve of aggression.
Given his larger-than-life persona, it would be easy to conclude that Modi sees war as extension of his politics. That would be a naïve reading. He is far too astute a leader not to realise that war is prosecuted only when all other options are exhausted. At the same time, he does not want to give an impression of being someone who can be deterred by threats of war. Since he assumed charge as prime minister, Modi has been evolving a new grammar of diplomacy to spawn new syntaxes not conforming to traditional wisdom.
Modi knows he is seen as a hard-liner. In sections of domestic and international media, he has an image of a Hindutva hawk, bordering on a war monger. At the beginning of his term as prime minister, he might have been new to diplomacy but was already a veteran of politics after 13 years as Gujarat chief minister. He was keen to face the Pakistan issue head on, knowing it full well that it would figure centrally in his politics as well as diplomacy. So, when he began his term as prime minister by making peace overtures to Pakistan, he surprised his supporters and detractors alike.
Two days before his swearing in as prime minister on May 26, 2014, Modi sought an appointment with the then president, Pranab Mukherjee. It prima facie appeared to be a customary visit though it was not. The PM-designate came to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with an agenda that was set to redefine India’s position in the South Asian region.
He requested Mukherjee to use his skills as a consummate statesman and former foreign minister to invite the top leaders of the SAARC nations to the swearing-in ceremony. “This is a good idea, Modi-ji. Let me work on it,” a visibly pleased Mukherjee replied, adding if an adequate security arrangement could be put in place to host such a large number of heads of states. “I will ensure that it is done,” Modi assured the president in no uncertain terms. In the next move, the home secretary was instructed to prepare security arrangements at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The presence of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif along with other heads of South Asian nations in the swearing-in ceremony bolstered his efforts. In his subsequent interaction, Modi found Sharif sincere in his commitment to carry forward the peace process between India and Pakistan.
His first meeting with Sharif was quite cordial. Modi discarded the diplomatic ceremonies and struck a personal rapport with the Pakistani PM.
The high point of this duet was in 2015, when Modi, ignoring criticism from his political rivals at home, played a big gamble in consonance with neither his image nor the diplomatic playbook. When he was stopping over in Kabul after visiting Russia and Afghanistan, he made a call to Sharif. The apparent reason was to greet the Pakistani prime minister on his birthday, December 25. In reply, Sharif requested him to stop by while flying over Lahore to attend his granddaughter’s marriage. To the surprise of the accompanying officials, the PM agreed and directed them to prepare for a brief visit to Lahore to meet Sharif. “I was aghast when the PM’s personal staff asked me to make arrangements for the Lahore visit,” said an accompanying IFS officer. The Indian ambassador at Islamabad was informed while the PM decided to leave Kabul for Lahore within an hour.
By all indications, it was an audacious decision to land in Lahore without any preparation. Security staff was in a tizzy; anything can happen in such moments. Things, however, went smoothly in Lahore. Sharif came to the airport to receive Modi, and took him to his palatial home in Raiwind. Modi used this occasion to cement their ties, and showed respect to Sharif’s mother by touching her feet. In a conversation that took place among Modi, Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz Shariff, the PM once again conveyed his message, this time in Urdu: “Jang bahut karli, kya paya? Na jannat mili, na jamin (We have fought many battles, what did we gain? Neither gained the heaven nor land).” Sharif and Shahbaz repeated this sentence in agreement, and reaffirmed their commitment of putting an end to terror and negotiate outstanding issues with India.
Modi, in other words, cannot be faulted for not doing his best for peace, despite his apparent hawkishness and ideology.
Trouble was, his moves were not matched by the other side. Terrorist attacks continued to recur. In the first week of 2016, in a fresh escalation of violence in the Kashmir valley, the Indian air base in Pathankot was attacked. This was a grave provocation but Modi chose to take it in his stride, as Sharif called him the same day and conveyed him his anguish over the dastardly act. “Modi-ji, I can understand your pain. But rest assured; I will take this issue to its logical end. Give me some time,” Sharif is believed to have told Modi in their telephonic conversation.
Highly placed sources in the government admit that Modi had thought the political leadership and the army in Pakistan were on the same page when it came to their views on terrorism. Given Sharif’s amiable nature and the talk of defeating terrorism in Pakistan, Modi decided to give Pakistan a chance. It was against this background that Sharif’s offer of sending a team of their intelligence officers for conducting their own investigation in the Pathankot attack was accepted. Though a section of Indian intelligence agencies was quite apprehensive of allowing Pakistan officials to inspect the country’s forward airbase, Modi placed trust in Sharif’s words and allowed limited access to the Pakistani team.
However, it did not take long for Modi to realise that whatever Sharif might say was irrelevant as he was as much controlled by Pakistan’s deep state as any of his predecessors. In September 2016, addressing the UN general assembly, Sharif made a reference to Kashmir and sought the international body’s intervention to resolve the issue. Modi virtually snubbed him by making a one-line reference and talked about futility of such efforts. But what appears to have conclusively unmasked Sharif was his exhortation for insurrection in Kashmir following the killing of Burhan Wani in encounter with the security forces in 2016.
The military establishment in Pakistan persuaded Sharif to issue statements in support of a Kashmiri “intifada” (uprising) and denounce the Indian government for the encounter killing. Wani, a militant, had emerged as a cult phenomenon among a section of youth in the valley that is seduced by the jihad proposition. Modi realised, rather too soon, the futility of carrying on any dialogue with the Pakistani political leadership. As if to support his conclusion, terrorists attacked an Indian army brigades headquarters at Uri on September 18, 2016, killing 17 jawans. And this brought an end to all romantic notions of peace and brotherhood.
Within 10 days of the Uri attack, the Indian army launched swift retribution in three places across the border regarded as launch pads of terror. The message was conveyed in unambiguous terms that India would respond to any attack in kind. Taken aback by India’s new posture, the Pakistani army initially denied there was any raid by India even as Sharif described it as “naked aggression” – only to dilute his remarks later.
Seen in this context, the Pulwama suicide attack is nothing but a sequel to the Pakistani army’s strategy of “bleeding India with a thousand cuts”. In the Pulwama incident, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) raised its operation by several notches as it used Adil Ahmed Dar, a local youth, after training and indoctrinating him, to act as suicide bomber. He was provided logistical support.
In the process, the Pakistani army committed a grave error in misreading Modi’s resolve for peace and war. His overtures for peace at the beginning of his tenure as prime minister were clearly guided by his desire for peaceful and prosperous co-existence among SAARC countries. His engagement with the political leadership of Pakistan, however, proved to be a non-starter. Even while engaging with Sharif’s successor, Imran Khan, Modi was cautious enough not to lower his guard. He toughened his stance once he realised that Khan too was being fronted by the Pakistani army to pursue its anti-India agenda. Pakistan’s two-faced nature was clearly visible when Khan spoke peace even as his government released postal stamps ‘in honour of’ Burhan Wani, describing him as a freedom icon. Once again Modi found his hopes belied by the cloak-and-dagger policies of Pakistan’s deep state.
Pakistan could have learnt a lesson or two from the evolution of India-China relations, which seem to have found a matured equilibrium in the past four years. The process did begin with a wobbly start. The Chinese forces made an excursion in Ladakh, even as Modi was hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad in 2014. Discarding diplomatese that defines conversation between heads of the state, Modi confronted Xi straightaway asked if there was a dissonance between the intentions of his government and those of the army. “Why are most of our high-profile bilateral visits marred by such unpleasant events?” he is believed to have asked Xi.
The visiting leader got the message, and the Ladakh matter was resolved. However, China continued with his intransigence in Arunachal Pardesh and Bhutan till it met with a delicate situation of confrontation with the Indian army at Doklam. Despite China’s threats of war and annihilation, the Indian army stood its ground for days on end. This was unusual. Earlier, India’s government tended to adopt an ostrich-like approach to China’s intrusion in border
The Doklam standoff clearly reset the terms of engagement between the two neighbours. China then became adequately sensitised to India’s concerns on repeated incursions.
Unlike China, which has more at stake in fostering peace than uncertainty in the region, Pakistan is showing no signs of giving up its hostilities. In his own experience, since he took the charge as prime minister, Modi realised that he had been dealing with an enemy not ready to mend his ways.
Given his deep commitment to the nation which he worships as Ma Bharati, or Mother India, as part of his political training since childhood, he would certainly not let this malevolent menace go unchallenged. Unlike some of his predecessors whose pacifism was guided by their desire to get a ‘politically correct’ assessment in history, Modi does not seem to entertain any such delusions. He first preferred a pragmatic and nuanced approach. Yet, when push came to shove, he did not hesitate in embracing conflict – and, message delivered, de-escalating at the first opportunity.
Pakistan will be making a mistake to treat Modi the way it treated his predecessors, who were conventional leaders. Modi defies such description.
(This article appears in the March 31, 2019 edition)
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