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‘Offensive defence’ is not the best strategy

Published : Sep 24, 2016, 6:14 am IST
Updated : Sep 24, 2016, 6:14 am IST

America’s President Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech, with the US presidential elections less than two months away, but Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the UN General Assembly 71st

America’s President Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech, with the US presidential elections less than two months away, but Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the UN General Assembly 71st session’s high-level segment September 20-26 in New York on the theme of “Sustainable development goals: A universal push to transform the world”, and the Chinese only sent Premier Li Keqiang. The other Permanent Five leaders were there, but the razzmatazz was clearly missing.

But unaffected by that, Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif, after some notional references to the theme, launched a tendentious attack on India. Pakistan wants peace but no preconditions were acceptable for talks as the talks are “not a favour to Pakistan”. Jammu and Kashmir was the core of the dispute. The unrest in Kashmir Valley is an “indigenous uprising”. He alleged human rights abuses too, about which he was submitting a dossier to the UN Secretary-General. Finally he reiterated the Pakistani litany about India ignoring the 1948 UNSC resolutions mandating a plebiscite to determine the will of the people.

The atmosphere in India was already surcharged after the Uri terror attack, which caused the death of 18 Armymen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-election rhetorical diatribes against the Congress came back to haunt him. His own core following, particularly the closed cycle of social media support, fed the public narrative with cries of instant and disproportionate retribution. Ram Madhav, the creator of the PDP-BJP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir, now demanded a “jaw for a tooth”.

With external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj due to address the UN session on September 26, India strongly rebutted Pakistan in New York, describing it was a “war machine”, and expressed shock over Mr Sharif’s move for the glorification of Burhan Wani, a self-proclaimed Hizbul Mujahideen member, as a freedom fighter.

Why have India-Pakistan relations slid so low since last year’s Christmas, when Mr Modi surprisingly landed in Lahore to interact socially with his Pakistani counterpart The attack on the Pathankot airbase soon afterwards was surmounted by Pakistan agreeing to apprehend the masterminds. Mr Modi was embarrassed when he let Pakistani investigators come and even visit the airbase, but Pakistan stalled the visit of an Indian team to Pakistan.

In April last, Mr Sharif proceeded to the UK for medical treatment, returning only in July. January to July was also a period of political transition in J&K, following chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s death in January. His daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, dithered for three months before assuming office in April and had barely settled down when the Valley burst into spontaneous unrest over the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8.

Pakistan had been longing for such an opportunity. The public ire in the Valley exploded over the mishandling of protests by Indian security forces, for which they were unprepared and ill-equipped. While Pakistan may have had little to do with the initial upsurge, it promptly fanned the disaffection by unleashing leaders of terrorist groups like Syed Salahuddin to issue calls from public platforms and by pushing jihadis across the Line of Control, to exploit the situation.

Sometime thereafter the government in Delhi decided that its Pakistan policy needed recalibration. Mr Modi’s opening salvo, just before the August 15 Red Fort speech, came at an all-party meeting when he berated Pakistan’s poor human rights record in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In his Independence Day address, Mr Modi reiterated the same forcefully. The battle was being taken to Pakistan’s interior to put it on the defensive. Was this the opening of what national security adviser Ajit Doval has called “offensive defence” At any rate, it was a novel approach, testing new methods to deter Pakistan from using terror as a negotiating tool in bilateral ties.

The problem with “forward defence” is that an attack like Uri triggers public opinion, already in an excited state, to seek instant retribution. After all, despicable as this attack was, it certainly was no 26/11 or even like the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001, which could have had India’s top leadership taken hostage or killed. India is drawing international sympathy and support, that will last as long as India eschews blatant military action. But as a former Army Chief said on television recently, a covert attack across the LoC, punitively effective though it may be, can’t be shared with the public and thus can’t be cathartic.

India should not also not delude itself that Pakistan is now totally isolated simply as the United States is lecturing it. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met Mr Sharif minutes before the latter’s UNGA address, and was quoted as saying: “We support Pakistan and will speak for Pakistan at every forum.” In fact, he offered to mediate to settle India-Pakistan differences. Both countries need to step back from the brink. India must deal with the Valley unrest with empathy and shrewdness. Pakistan needs to recall that the Valley is not obtainable by methods that have failed in the past. Both may have domestic compulsions. Mr Sharif’s Chief of Army Staff retires in two months and he would rather replace him. Tension with India would make that difficult. Mr Modi faces a crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly election by February 2017, where dalit-Muslim convergence due to his own partymen’s depredations could spell defeat for the BJP. While jingoism may help, a mishandled operation with Pakistan can play badly domestically.

With winter fast approaching, a measured approach can restore some normality in the Valley. Militancy will also abate. India needs to wean Mr Sharif away from his Army and Pakistan away from China, into the arms of which it is being driven more deeply. Good strategy, as they say, can tolerate poor tactics, not the other way around. Mr Modi needs something more sensible than “offensive defence”.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh