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Modi’s firm message but can war-mongers be kept at bay?

Modi’s firm message but can war-mongers be kept at bay?


In the universe of the 24×7 media, there is literally no place to hide. Which is why it should come as no surprise that a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking out as Gujarat chief minister against the then UPA government’s Pakistan policy went viral last week. The video shows Modi mocking the Manmohan Singh government for not giving Pakistan a befitting reply to a terror attack. “Why are you not marching into Pakistan instead of begging the world for support,” he can be heard saying in the video. Which is why the announcement of surgical strikes on Pakistan-based terror camps in the aftermath of the Uri attack is the PM’s moment of truth: How far now does Modi go in living up to his pre-2014 election promise of “teaching Pakistan a lesson”.

In a sense, the transition from being a gung-ho Opposition politician baying for blood to creating a template for strategic restraint reflects the power of democracy, one that can temper the rough edges of political demagoguery by the challenges of governance in a complex society. In his recent speeches in Kozhikode and in Mann Ki Baat, Modi has shown a reassuring pragmatism in his remarks on Pakistan: Sending out a tough message to Islamabad without appearing bellicose or engaging in the grand-standing that his past at times might suggest. Even the surgical strikes appear to have been carried out more with the intent of a first warning rather than a declaration of war. To that extent, Modi’s policy has been marked by an appropriate, rather than a disproportionate, response.

Contrast that with his supporters, many of whom seem to believe that Modi needs to go much further. “A jaw for a tooth”, screamed the BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav. Another BJP leader bizarrely claimed in a TV debate that by next Independence Day the Indian flag would be flying over Islamabad. On social media, the BJP’s Internet army is jubilant over reports of the “surgical strike” and hankers for more. Even while the military leadership has spoken of a limited operation, war has been declared in television studios and cyberspace.

This uncontrolled jingoism should again come as no surprise. “The lets go to war” hysteria on television is a sure-shot way of raising not just the political temperature, but also TV rating points. Warring Indian and Pakistani generals make for “good” TV — a euphemism for placing sensation above sense through high-decibel slugfests. TV has created a large constituency for war: There is less space for any moderate, nuanced position in a debate that is designed on the lines of a WWE-like wrestling format where noise matters more than news.

For the BJP’s core support, strident nationalism that seeks to treat Pakistan as the permanent “enemy” who must be destroyed at all costs fits in with the Akhand Bharat worldview that still doesn’t recognise Partition. It is almost the mirror image of those hotheads in Pakistan who would like India to bleed with a “thousand cuts”. The saffron Right has for long believed that the Congress presided over a namby-pamby State that gave away far too many concessions to Pakistan. A large part of their antipathy to Jawaharlal Nehru, and to some extent Mahatma Gandhi too, is the accusation that the Congress leadership never called the bluff of the Pakistanis Right from 1947, with Kashmir in particular a festering sore. Now, that there is the first majority Right-wing government led by a leader with a self-proclaimed “chhappan ki chati” (56-inch chest), the saffron warriors have reason to believe that the past failings will be corrected. If not the entire Pakistani State, then at the very least Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, must be re-captured.

Which is why many of Modi’s most ardent supporters seem to be almost goading the PM to declare war at the earliest rather than hold back. The diplomatic isolation of Pakistan that the government is attempting is a painstaking process; one that involves reaching out to numerous stakeholders . It requires skill and resolve, but most importantly, patience. It’s an approach that has been attempted by Modi’s predecessors, Manmohan Singh and AB Vajpayee with mixed results. The only problem is that the larger-than-life image of Modi was built on a muscular politics that sees the PM as an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like ‘Terminator’, not a statesman who uses diplomacy as a preferred weapon.

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The question then is, will the Modi administration follow up the surgical strikes with a more concerted assault on Pakistan’s terror machine. Elections in the key state of Uttar Pradesh are just months away and Modi is aware that he cannot afford another “jhappi-pappi” moment with Nawaz Sharif , which is why the Saarc summit has been called off. At the same time, he has to impose a heavy cost on Islamabad for harbouring terrorists. The calculated strikes across LoC may send out a bold message, but to what extent can the PM take risks of an escalated conflict that might end up undermining the Indian growth story is the real question. It is a moment that requires sober reflection rather than premature celebration. So far, Modi has struck the right balance but for how long can he keep the warmongers at bay.

Post-script: It’s not just Modi, but even his colleague Sushma Swaraj has had to nuance her response. When an Indian soldier was beheaded in 2013, Swaraj had immediately called for 10 Pakistani heads for every one Indian killed. Now, her well crafted speech at the UN shows that playing to the domestic gallery is a very different proposition to building a global coalition against terror.

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