The September 29 strike was different in a significant way that not only did the Narendra Modi government own it, but also publicised it.
In the wee hours of September 29, the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir. The operation was against Pakistan sponsored terrorists. Strikes, claimed the central Government, destroyed terror launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
While such and similar operations have been launched in the past, September 29 strike was different in a significant way that not only the BJP-led NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi owned it, but also publicised it.
Blowing the trumpet loud and clear, the Director General of Military Operation (DGMO) Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh held a press conference on the morning after the ‘successful’ surgical strike and read out a statement, but refused to take any questions from the press corps that had been summoned to announce a strategic step that had been taken in close consultation with the government.
While political parties initially supported the Indian Army’s operation against terrorist launch pads unanimously, there was a setback when UN Secretary General Ben Ki-moon’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the "UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan has not directly observed any firing across the LoC related to the latest incident."
The Indian Permanent Representative at the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, rejected the refusal from the UN saying that "I have nothing to say because what (Dujarric) said 'was directly observed.' It’s call that they have to take. I cannot place myself in their boots and directly observe something."
"Facts on the ground do not change whether somebody has observed it or not," Akbaruddin further said.
However, the statement from the UN Secretary General’s spokesman damaged India’s image and helped the Islamabad stand that there was no surgical strike but it was only an unprovoked firing on the LoC in which two Pakistani soldiers had been "martyred".
The NDA government’s decision of a surgical strike and its admission of it publically is definitely a shift in its Pakistan policy. The predecessor UPA government had conducted similar strikes in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013 but had not given them such an extensive publicity and had not even called them "surgical strikes" which evoke both awe and novelty.
The surgical strikes against Pakistan, after receiving accolades and unanimous support from the opposition parties on the first, have soon become a tug of war between the ruling BJP and its political rivals, mainly the Congress.
It happened soon after the BJP went to town claiming that the Modi government’s decision of undertaking surgical strikes against Pakistan was a "first" and "unprecedented". It was perceived by the opposition that the BJP was trying to take political advantage of the government’s strategic decision for the coming assembly elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Manipur.
The Congress reacted by claiming that similar operations had been conducted by the Congress-led UPA government, but it had not tried to take political advantage and had not publicised them. Former defence minister of the UPA regime, A. K. Antony, went on record to claim that similar cross-LoC operations were conducted during his time.
"It has been the practise of the Indian Army" to undertake such "retaliatory actions against attacks from the enemy side," Antony told the media, asserting that his government had "extended full backing to Army’s such decisions and actions."
"On many occasions during the UPA regime, when there were provocative attacks from the rival side, the Indian Army conducted surgical strikes and other retaliatory attacks across the LoC," the former defence minister of the Manmohan Singh government, said.
Other Congress leaders like former finance minister P. Chidambarm and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh also questioned the BJP’s claim that the September 29 surgical strikes were either unique or unprecedented.
Some of the opposition leaders, including Delhi Chief Minister Arivnd Kejriwal, even asked the government to produce evidence of the operation to expose Pakistan’s claim that no such strikes took place.
A war of words broke out between the BJP leaders and the opposition leaders in which several ministers of the Modi government became active participants. It began to impair the government’s main objective to isolate Pakistan internationally and prevent future terrorist attacks from across the border on the Indian soil.
With the situation turning murkier, and fearing it can turn counter-productive politically, the prime minister himself is reported to have asked the ministers not to talk out of turn on the subject. He advised his ministers not to indulge in chest-thumping themselves.
However, the BJP and its alliance partners like Shiv Sena appear to have gone on an overdrive to take political advantage of the surgical strike. Already posters on the strike are reported to have surfaced in Uttar Pradesh, which is going to assembly elections early next year. But the fact is if it tries to take political advantage of the strike, then it will have to face determined opposition from its political opponents in coming weeks and months.
A realisation seems to have dawned on Prime Minister Modi that fighting a political battle with the opposition would be self-defeating and that is precisely why he has chosen to issue an advisory to his ministerial colleagues and senior party leaders that they should avoid chest thumping.
By calling its opponents "anti-national" or "unpatriotic" may help it electorally in the coming assembly elections, but the approach would be damaging and detrimental to the newly crafted Pakistan policy. Political restraint and taking opposition along would have given a sharper edge to its policy.
The changed Pakistan policy poses serious challenges to the NDA government. Its diplomacy will have to work hard to expose Islamabad’s designs internationally and at the same time it will also have to remain in a state of high alert for a considerable period of time.
Hopefully, the Prime Minister’s command is respected and bickering stops between the ruling party and the opposition failing which the government’s avowed goal of the Pakistan policy would continue to elude the NDA government.
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Satish Misra was Senior Fellow at ORF. He has been a journalist for many years. He has a PhD in International Affairs from Humboldt University ...Read More +