POLITICS

Why Modi Can Pull Off Strategic Restraint While UPA Would Have Looked Impotent

There are benefits to a “chappan-ki-chhati” image.

26/09/2016 12:56 PM IST | Updated 26/09/2016 3:17 PM IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses during the BJP public meeting, on September 24, 2016 in Kozhikode, India.

Narendra Modi's speech last Saturday in a Kozhikode party rally should be seen as a watershed event in his prime ministership and his approach to Pakistan. His speech was remarkable both for the aggressive intent conveyed and the different constituencies he addressed.

In a few short minutes, he spoke directly to the Pakistani people, sent a message to the Pakistani Deep State, reassured his domestic audience, mollified his core political support base, and allowed the international community to breathe easy. Each constituency got a subtly different message that effectively leaves him with room for policy manoeuvre.

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Consider what each constituency wanted from him after the Uri attack by Pakistan-based terrorists killed 18 soldiers: the Pakistani Deep State (the army, the ISI and the various Islamist and jihadi groups under army control) wants to kill India with a "thousand cuts" and provoke it to take hasty action that invites global attention and internationalisation of the so-called Kashmir dispute.

The domestic audience wants to know that Modi is no rash warmonger even while protecting national interests. His core right-wing support base wants action, preferably macho military action. And the global community, already distracted with many mini wars in West Asia and facing terrorism on home soil, does not want India to escalate its problems with Pakistan.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with senior BJP leaders LK Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi and others during the BJP public meeting, on September 25, 2016 in Kozhikode.

The world fears that a conflict between India and Pakistan carries the risk of nuclear escalation. This is why the Modi speech should be seen as masterful, since it addressed all constituencies. Consider some of the statements he made.

He said he was prepared for a 1,000-year conflict, which was a message to the Deep State that India is ready to return its thousand cuts with some cut-and-thrust of its own.

Then he talked directly to the people of Pakistan, over the heads of the Deep State, and challenged Pakistan to a new war – against poverty, illiteracy, and child mortality. This may not necessarily find traction immediately with the ordinary citizen of Pakistan fed on decades of anti-India rhetoric, but the Modi intention will not be lost on anyone. He is trying to develop a cleavage between the people and the army.

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Photographs of Indian army soldier Gangadhar Dalai, who was killed in a militant attack in Uri, Kashmir, are displayed by villagers on Indian flags in Jamuna Balia village, west of Kolkata.

He also said that India would never forget the Uri attack. This is to address the broad national audience, which is currently angry. But he knows that India's anger seldom lasts. He gave no hint that war is on his mind; just a steely determination to do "something" about this attack. His direct address to the Pakistani people is actually directed at the non-Sangh national audience.

Modi said: "I call upon people of Pakistan to come forward, fight a war on who defeats unemployment, poverty, illiteracy first. Let's see who wins the battle." Further: "In India infants and pregnant women die. In Pakistan also the scenario is the same. Let's fight to save them. You fight to save them, we'll also fight to save them. Let's see who wins."

There are enough indications that India will be more proactive in interpreting its rights in the Indus Water Treaty; Modi is unlikely to abrogate it, but will surely start tweaking it to use the leverage it gives India.

This carried echoes of a call made in Bihar in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, when explosions were set off at his rally. Soon after, Modi said that Hindus and Muslims must decide if they want to fight each other or poverty. His "sabka saath, sabka vikas" message is intact.

He also partly addressed his core right-wing constituency, which wants strong retributive action. But the war-talk has been sublimated into action on other fronts: this actually began with his reference to Balochistan in his I-Day address. After Uri, Modi has clearly moved to a position of formal belligerence with Pakistan, where the screws will be tightened in different areas so that Pakistan pays a rising cost for instigating and fostering terrorism against India.

There are enough indications that India will be more proactive in interpreting its rights in the Indus Water Treaty; Modi is unlikely to abrogate it, but will surely start tweaking it to use the leverage it gives India.

He will probably position it as a pro-Kashmir move, something that will drive a wedge between Pakistan's claims to be battling for the people of Kashmir when it is undermining their Indus water rights. Pakistan's torch-bearers in the Valley will now have square-off their pro-Pakistan tilt against defending the state's interests on the Indus Water Treaty.

What is apparent to everyone, from the Pakistani Deep State to ordinary Pakistanis, to Indians and the core Right-wing voter base of Modi, is a subtle shift in India's strategy on Pakistan: Modi has given up on the Pakistani civilian government as it has repeatedly shown itself to be incapable on going against its Deep State.

There is no jaadu-ki-jhappi available from impulsive visits to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif. The chances are India will not give priority to talks with the government, and instead focus on isolating the Deep State through global diplomacy, and other actions.

There is no jaadu-ki-jhappi available from impulsive visits to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif. The chances are India will not give priority to talks with the government, and instead focus on isolating the Deep State through global diplomacy, and other actions.

Equally clear is the realisation that outright war is not an answer. Any gains from it will be minimal, and the costs huge. Modi has effectively promised war by other means (raking up trouble in Pakistani provinces, tweaking the Indus treaty, covert actions against Pakistan-based terrorists, shifting the focus from Saarc to bilateral or multilateral agreements with other Saarc nations, reviewing the Most-Favoured-Nation status for Pakistan, etc). The world can learn to live with this.

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Indian soldiers guard outside the army base which was attacked Sunday by suspected militants at Uri.

This strategy plays to Modi's strengths for a simple reason: the aura of macho strength remains with him, but without committing him to rash action. A Manmohan Singh doing the same would have appeared weak; a Modi calibrating an active and aggressive policy against Pakistan (but without war) will be seen as carrying a hefty punch.

"Strategic restraint", when practiced by the UPA, looks like weakness or impotence; "strategic restraint", when displayed by Modi, looks like a display of restrained strength. There are benefits to a "chappan-ki-chhati" image.

In one sense, the BJP has more space to manoeuvre its Pakistan policy than the Congress because it is perceived as a nationalist party. Thus despite Kandahar, despite Vajpayee's Lahore-to-Kargil adventure, and Modi's low-key response to Pathankot which led to Uri, the country is not going to change its views on its nationalist credentials.

"Strategic restraint", when practiced by the UPA, looks like weakness or impotence; "strategic restraint", when displayed by Modi, looks like a display of restrained strength. There are benefits to a "chappan-ki-chhati" image.

On the downside, no matter what Modi says or does in the short run, the BJP will be perceived as a party with a secularism-deficit, but all its mistakes don't add up to doubts about its nationalism. Perception cuts both ways, and in dealing with Pakistan, Modi holds high cards. If he stumbles occasionally, it will be seen as an aberration; if he succeeds in even a small way, it will be seen as confirmation of his no-nonsense approach to protecting national interest.

Pakistan has made a huge mistake with Modi. If at all it wanted a peace deal, Modi was the best person to deliver it, for he is the only one who can take the flak for concessions made and live to tell the tale. Manmohan Singh could not, for the BJP holds the nationalist veto.

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