Musings from afar

Why Modi took 11 days to order surgical strikes against Pakistan

The Centre recognised the limitations of overt military responses to target the neighbour's provocations.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   30-09-2016
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The "surgical strikes" on terrorist bases along the LoC on Wednesday night have brought about a sigh of relief for the NDA government, which was under pressure to punish the perpetrators of Uri attack.

However, what took it 11 days to occur needs to be examined in the light of Narendra Modi's strategic restraint.

Unlike its predecessors the Modi government has given tactical and operational autonomy to the armed forces which resulted in the Indian Army "crossing the LoC" and inflicting significant casualties "on the terrorists and those who are trying to support them" - at the right time.

The Modi government's initial response to terrorist attack on Uri Army base was measured despite Pakistani provocations, including an earlier strike at the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in January.

There were signs that India was losing patience and there seemed to be a push for retaliation in order to avoid a domestic backlash. Modi was reviewing the government's options and in his first public reaction in Kozhikode last week, he made a case for strategic restraint.

The challenge

Modi first threw a challenge to ordinary Pakistanis, asking them if they could find solutions to development issues faster than India could.

"I want to tell the people of Pakistan, India is ready to fight you. If you have the strength, come forward to fight against poverty. Let's see who wins. Let's see who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India," he said.

His speech, which drew a stark contrast between an India which exports software and a Pakistan which exports terror, befuddled his critics and his supporters alike but there is a strategic logic to Modi's arguments.

There is a sense at the highest echelons of government in New Delhi that Modi's overtures towards Pakistani civilian government have not been reciprocated.

He had invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his government's swearing-in ceremony, hoping to start a new chapter in India-Pakistan ties.

But since then there have been more downs than ups. The Modi government had recognised from the beginning that a quest for durable peace with Pakistan is a nonstarter.

All that matters is the management of a neighbour that is often viewed as a nuisance by Delhi.

modikerala-759_093016084028.jpg PM Narendra Modi. (Photo credit: PTI)

For India, the real challenge is China which has pledged $46 billion worth of investment in Pakistan and made Islamabad a proxy in its struggle for supremacy vis-a-vis New Delhi.

Modi as a pragmatist also recognises that his agenda of enhancing regional cooperation in South Asia will remain unfulfilled without a thaw in India-Pakistan tensions.

At a time when interconnectivity is the norm across the world, two neighbours cannot remain forever locked in a spiral of perpetual hostility and violence.

But Modi's decision to engage with Pakistan was seen by some as another instance of Delhi's "on again, off again" inconsistent approach towards Pakistan. Sections within his own party were against overtures to Pakistan.

And then the Pakistani military also decided to reassert its supremacy on India policy by provoking Indian military on the border and by a series of terror attacks in India, the latest of which happened on Sunday.

It also decided to ratchet up the pressure on Kashmir by provoking the local populace against India so as to internationalise the Kashmir issue during the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly.

The civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, weakened by corruption charges against its leader, had no option but to give in to the military's aggression.

Sharif, howsoever well-intentioned, failed to demonstrate that he could take on the all-powerful military over the issue of India.

Islamabad also went back to its earlier position now that there could not be any dialogue with India unless the issue of Kashmir was on the agenda.


Pakistan would like to change the status quo in Kashmir while India would like the very opposite. India hopes that negotiations with Pakistan would ratify the existing territorial status quo in Kashmir.

These are irreconcilable differences and no confidence-building measure is likely to alter this situation.

India's premise has largely been that a peace process will persuade Pakistan to cease supporting and sending extremists into India.

Pakistan, in contrast, has viewed the process as a means to nudge India into making progress on Kashmir, which is essentially a euphemism for concessions.


The government wants to fundamentally reshape the underpinnings of India's Pakistan policy.

It started with a view that India should continue to talk - there is nothing to lose in having some level of diplomatic engagement - even as it decided to underline what it felt were the costs of Pakistan's escalatory tactics with targeted attacks on Pakistani forces along the border.

After years of ceding the initiative to Pakistan, the Modi government wanted to dictate the terms for negotiations.

But as the present outcry in India underscores, this is easier said than done when nuclear weapons are a strategic reality and where Pakistan relies on non-state proxies to wage its battle against India.

Like its predecessors, the Modi government too recognised the limitations of overt military responses to target Pakistani provocations.

New Delhi is yet to find a way which adequately punishes Pakistan without crossing the nuclear threshold.

This is partly a result of India's tardy defence modernisation programme and partly of its institutional dysfunctionalities.

But in the end, the government chose to launch a pincer attack: to work diplomatically towards ensuring Pakistan's isolation and allow the army to speak in a language that befits a bunch of loony terrorists.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read - India hits back: 5 reasons why Army's surgical strikes were historic


Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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