Thus far it was just talk. But in the wee hours of Thursday (29 September), when the Indian army launched "surgical strikes" on terrorist "launch-pads" in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), killing an indeterminate number of them, including some Pakistani soldiers, India crossed more than just the line-of-control (LoC). It crossed the self-imposed line of "strategic restraint" imposed by the political leadership till recently.
By dumping "strategic restraint", a euphemism for doing nothing and stoically adopting a defensive posture against Pakistan-backed jihadis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered on his promise that the Uri attack, which killed 18 soldiers, shall not "go unpunished."
The army action marks a huge shift in India's posture towards Pakistan and can rightfully be called the Modi doctrine of "strategic action" below the threshold of outright war. This strategy is intended to make Pakistan pay a price for trying to bleed India with "a thousand cuts" using terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. More importantly, it signals the abandonment of the earlier policy, whose hallmark was pusillanimity and fear of nuclear escalation.
Consider the implications of this action:
1) India has essentially called Pakistan's nuclear bluff and blackmail, a threat held out only a day before by the Pakistani defence minister.
2) The Line-of-Control, which was never crossed even during the Kargil war despite pressure from the Army and the Indian Air Force, has finally been crossed, albeit with the explicit claim that it was an anti-terror operation within PoK, and not in Pakistan. The Vajpayee line of restraint too has been crossed.
3) India has implicitly accepted that it will now face increased terrorism from Pakistan, since it cannot have assumed that Pakistan will do nothing after India's incursion into PoK. The Pakistan army's Punjabi machismo will not allow that. The Modi doctrine has effectively accepted the higher risk of terrorism in India, but calculates that this risk is worth taking since not doing anything has only emboldened Pakistan to do more of the same. Now, it can at least make Pakistan pay a price. India must thus brace for another round of terrorism in its urban centres, and possibly in Jammu & Kashmir too. Pakistan is sure to stir the discontent in Kashmir Valley, in order to open a front behind the army.
4) The LoC action, and also the preceding government decisions to boycott the Saarc summit and review the Indus Water Treaty, signal another break with the past: India no longer sees the elected government in Pakistan as capable of delivering any kind of forward movement on peace. This is why Modi talked directly to the people of Pakistan during his Kozhikode rally, challenging them to fight India on poverty eradication, unemployment, and child mortality. Modi has rightly concluded that talking with Pakistan's government is a waste of time, when it is the Deep State that rules the roost. The idea of the LoC action is to tell the Pakistani people that this conflict is being precipitated by their own reckless army. It may not work, but the attempt needed to be made.
5) Perhaps the most important Rubicon crossed was the mental one, where India has perennially tried to be the good guy in pursuit of its global goals. Among these goals are an entry into the US Security Council as a permanent member, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), both blocked by China. By crossing the LoC, India has told the world that earning brownie points by turning the other cheek is not worth it, if the net result is more terrorist action against the country. Moreover, it is also a realisation that great powers do not become great by trying to please everybody. They become great by accumulating economic and military strength. This was China's route to great power status, and Modi has realised that the world speaks to strength, not weakness.
The Modi government has also chosen the right time to strike, when global opinion has moved significantly against state sponsors of terror.
The Modi government has also chosen the right time to strike, when global opinion has moved significantly against state sponsors of terror. And the big powers are too engrossed in their own battles against with terror (in Europe, in West Asia, etc) to intervene as long as India does not push retaliation to the point of full-scale war.
It is also not an accident that the government decided yesterday to launch Muslim panchayats to bring the benefits of development to this community, currently estranged from the BJP. Given the potential for Muslim radicalisation back home, Modi is essentially moving to cover his flanks.
Looking back at the last two-and-odd years of Modi's government, it is clear that his diplomatic outreach has begun to work in his favour finally. Today, no major country is likely to raise its voice against India's actions, indicating that Modi's diplomacy is seamlessly merging with his strategic choices. Modi established his peaceful intent when he went out of his way to talk to Nawaz Sharif, and even allowing its investigators access to the Pathankot military base after the terrorist attack there this January. Pakistan's ill intent now stands exposed.
To be sure, it is early days for the Modi doctrine. Its real test will come later, when terrorism escalates. The doctrine will have to be fine-tuned further based on how Pakistan responds to Thursday's cross-border strike and the other retributive measures that will be announced by the government in future. It will need regular recalibration, based on results.
The Modi doctrine will also need to build other long-term capabilities, including the ability to launch covert actions inside Pakistan, providing diplomatic and material support to anti-Pakistan forces, including the Balochs, investing in intelligence assets, and marshalling diplomatic opinion against Pakistan. It is with the last aim in mind that India briefed 22 diplomats soon after the LoC strike, including China, Pakistan's main sponsor.
But one thing is loud and clear after round one in the India-Pakistan face-off across the LoC: the velvet glove now comes with an iron fist. India's posture is no longer purely defensive; it is defensive-offensive.