Originally Published 2016-09-22 12:42:07 Published on Sep 22, 2016
Retaliation, as in a neutralisation of the specific groups and masterminds behind the Uri attack, may not be logistically feasible.
After Uri? Choices before Modi

Even if one discounts the war gaming in news television studios and the civilisational conflicts being played out daily on social media, it is apparent that the aftermath of the Uri attack is not the same as that of the Pathankot raid in January this year. True, there is enough in common between the two incidents. In Pathankot, an Indian Air Force base was invaded by a terror militia. In Uri, an Indian Army camp was targeted. In both cases, the victims were men in uniform, rather than civilians.

Yet, that is where the similarities cease. The sheer number of soldiers killed in Uri — 18 — makes this a bigger political-management challenge for the Narendra Modi government. The public anger and grim mood in the ranks of the Army are understandable. Seldom if ever in peacetime has the Indian Army lost so many soldiers < class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_1470252810">< class="aQJ">in one day. There is the sense that an assault of this nature, so close to the Line of Control, would have required logistical support and meticulous planning that could only have come from military backing by (sections of the) Pakistani state.

After Pathankot, the Modi government’s response was reasoned and measured. In part, this was a result of the up-and-down relationship with Pakistan since India called off the foreign secretary-level talks in the summer of 2014 on the Hurriyat issue. Specially given that troubled history and certain diplomatic missteps in 2014-15, the Indian government was keen not to be seen as impetuous and spoiling for a fight. As such, it absorbed the Pathankot blow.

It even allowed Pakistani investigators, including an officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to travel to Pathankot. Subsequently, the "investigation" died away. Pakistan did not offer reciprocal access to Indian investigators and did not make available Jaish-e-Mohammad suspects.

Given this backdrop, today the Modi government will be justified in believing it has paid its dues. It also knows it doesn’t have the political space for a measured and reasoned response — on the lines of its post-Pathankot behaviour — this time as well.

After Uri, the pressure is that much more. Something greater than strong statements and rhetorical flourishes will be demanded. In keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s self-identification as a tough leader who will not shy away from punitive action and from imposing costs on those who threaten Indian lives and institutions, the government will not have the leeway of previous governments or indeed of this government itself till a few months ago.

The question is: what does "do something" amount to? A full-scale war is out of the question and not on the menu of options, but neither is no action at all in the defensive belief that escalation is inevitable and in that sense a nuclear Pakistan is left holding a permanent veto. The Modi government has indicated it doesn’t quite buy the "escalation is inevitable" logic. That was one of the principles prompting its deployment of the Balochistan card. It seems to be convinced of the idea that it is possible to call Pakistan’s bluff, to a certain extent at least.

What does this mean in practice? Any punitive action, any attempt to "impose costs", will need to be publicly recognised as such and will need to have a certain visibility. Given this, to suggest covert operations and mysterious "incidents" in Pakistan could be resorted to — provided India has the intelligence backup and agents on the ground for such a project in the first place — is beside the point. It may not satisfy immediate public outrage. In that sense, the demands of Mr. Modi’s political capital and of a longer-term strategy of weakening terrorist groups and rogue institutions within Pakistan by building assets in that country are not necessarily on the same timeline.

It is crucial to distinguish between retaliation and response, in a narrow and exact sense of those words.

Retaliation, as in a neutralisation of the specific groups and masterminds behind the Uri attack, may not be logistically feasible. Response, as in an action in perhaps another theatre — territorial or in terms of domains — is more likely and could perhaps be expected.

Ironically, this would probably suit the Pakistan Army and help it get even more leverage over the already weakened Nawaz Sharif government.

While Islamabad-based observers deny it strongly, Indian diplomats feel a part of the reason for repeated provocations from Pakistan could be to build a case for Gen. Raheel Sharif to stay on as Army Chief, rather than retire later this year.

It may be pertinent that the global community has probably factored in the possibility of a muscular response from India, rather than bet on continued forbearance. There are three reasons for this. First, it was acknowledged after 26/11 that India could not be held back time and again. At some point its government — any government — would need to concede ground to public sentiment. Second, following Mr. Modi’s election, it was apparent that his product-differentiation from the predecessor government would put him under greater pressure following a terrorist strike.

Third, frankly the world is less cautious, less politically correct and less and less reined in by coherent global leadership. September 2016 is not September 2001; it is not even November 2008. There is a diminishing of the West’s ability and desire to urge individual countries to turn the other cheek when confronted by armed actors motivated by some form of Islamism. That gives Mr. Modi greater room and greater autonomy than was available to Manmohan Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee. How does he plan to use that autonomy?

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.

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Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik Fellow The Antara Foundation

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