Modi May Claim the Pakistan Standoff as Success, but Key Questions Remain
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As the dust whirled up by the recent bout of tensions between India and Pakistan is settling again, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under the spotlight at home for his handling of the episode. The timing is particularly delicate for him: Modi is at a critical political juncture as India gears for the next general elections, expected to be held in April and May 2019. While foreign policy issues tend to have little impact on voter behavior, Modi would nonetheless be keen to manage public perceptions of his crisis management. He will thus strive to craft a narrative for himself that highlights some of the immediate gains from the standoff, in the hope that this will resonate with key sections of the domestic audience even as the long-term strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan remains unclear.
The recent standoff between India and Pakistan was triggered by the February 14 terrorist attack in Pulwama in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The suicide bombing, for which the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) has claimed responsibility, left more than 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force officers dead. In response to the attack, the Indian Air Force struck JeM’s training camps at Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, on February 26. The next day, Pakistan’s Air Force retaliated by carrying out air strikes across the Line of Control (LoC). India’s Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured during the aerial engagement that ensued. Varthaman’s release, within days and under heavy international pressure, allowed the situation to calm down and prevented further escalation into full-blown war.
Modi’s detractors and some political analysts have criticized him for resorting to such an overt display of military aggression without factoring in the possible escalation that followed. Other critics have aimed at what they see as a politicization of the air strikes for domestic electoral gains. Some of Modi’s domestic political opponents have even issued a joint statement in which they criticize him for the “blatant politicisation of sacrifices made by the armed forces,” and for failing to generate a national consensus on how to deal with Pakistan.
In his defense, Modi will likely point to three ‘success stories’: the strategic message that India’s strikes have sent to Pakistan; his refusal to back down amidst an escalating situation; and the international pressure faced by Pakistan during the recent standoff.
For starters, the Balakot air strikes have indeed already been hailed by many as representing a departure from the past. They marked the first time that attacks have been carried out beyond Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir and the first time that India has conducted air strikes against Pakistan since 1971. The true impact of these strikes – in terms of terrorist casualties and the terror infrastructure that was destroyed – is not yet clear amidst the barrage of claims and counter-claims from different sources. In any case, the immediate tactical success may not have been the topmost objective on this occasion. The strikes serve to undermine the Pakistan security establishment’s long-held notion – one shared by the international community – that its nuclear arsenal would deter any retaliation from India. The aerial strikes on Pakistan’s sovereign territory were meant to demonstrate India’s willingness to retaliate against cross-border terrorism, widen the threshold for conventional military operations, and rewrite the terms of engagement with Pakistan.
Secondly, the air strikes and the subsequent standoff with Pakistan will allow Modi to shore up support among his core constituencies and bolster his image as a strong leader who is unwilling to appear “soft” on Pakistan. The prime minister has adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Pakistan at various points during his tenure, in an attempt to unilaterally alter the terms of engagement with India’s neighbor. For instance, his decision in August 2014 (a few months after he assumed power) to cancel foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan following a meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and Kashmiri separatists was meant to signal that business could not continue as usual. Similarly, the ‘surgical strikes’ he ordered in 2016 in response to another terrorist attack against an Indian army base in Kashmir were, until recently, being celebrated as India’s most decisive response to Pakistan. The Balakot air strikes will likely serve a similar purpose of showcasing Modi as someone who can ensure that “the country is in safe hands.” His reported refusal to enter into dialogue with Pakistan to secure Varthaman’s release is another case in point.
The release was indeed mainly the result of international pressure on Pakistan. And therein lies the third ‘success story’ – and one of the most concrete wins – for Modi from this entire episode: two of Pakistan’s strongest allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), urged Pakistan to take this step. The UAE went even further in refusing Pakistan’s request to cancel the invitation it had extended to Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj for the next Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit, the first time that India has been invited to the event. Throughout his tenure, Modi has carefully cultivated close relations with the Gulf countries; their stance during the latest confrontation with Pakistan can be seen to vindicate his diplomatic efforts.
In this sense, the reaction from Western countries is also telling. While there were general calls for restraint on both parties, there was no international criticism of the Indian air strikes. In fact, France emphasized India’s right to defend itself against terrorism and, along with the US, Germany, the UK, and the European Union, called upon Pakistan to take sterner measures to curb terrorism on its soil. This is significant given the West’s history of blaming both countries for the tensions on the subcontinent or even calling only upon India (as the larger country) to deescalate. This international pressure on Pakistan, even if momentary, is the result of the Modi government’s considerable diplomatic efforts over the past few years and its significance should not be underestimated.
While Modi can undoubtedly claim some gains from this recent standoff with Pakistan, none of these are absolute. The prime minister may well work to fashion a positive narrative for himself; however, the long-term impact of these gains remains to be seen. For instance, while Modi will likely highlight the strategic messaging behind the Balakot air strikes, many key questions remain unanswered: Are such overt military operations now the default response to a terrorist attack? Does India have the capacity and will to strike deeper into Pakistan to increase the cost of harboring and supporting terror groups? Can India deal with the inevitable retaliation from Pakistan? What other tools is New Delhi willing to use to counter cross-border terrorism? These are important considerations that would help define an effective long-term strategy against Pakistan-supported terrorism, and would require the concerted effort of the next Indian government.
Similarly, the narrative of a strong leader who is unwilling to accommodate Pakistan risks creating a dangerous and ultimately untenable expectation in India that such problems can be solved easily through force and violence. It may well diminish the avenues for dialogue, thereby backing the government into a corner. Moreover, the fact that cross-border terrorism continued throughout Modi’s tenure – numerous Indian military bases were attacked in Kashmir even after the ‘surgical strikes’ – clearly suggests that such an overtly aggressive policy, by itself, is unlikely to be effective in the long-term.
Finally, despite the diplomatic success during the recent crisis, there is still a long way to go before Modi’s publicly stated objective of Pakistan’s global diplomatic isolation can be achieved. That idea will remain untenable as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan enjoys close relations with China. The recent OIC resolution on Kashmir, which criticized New Delhi for “intensified Indian barbarities” soon after Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj left the summit, indicates that the Gulf countries will continue to balance their relations with both India and Pakistan.
We should expect Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party to project many success stories from the recent confrontation with Pakistan – it is election season after all. However, none of them, barring the diplomatic efforts, offer any clarity on a long-term strategy toward cross-border terrorism and Pakistan. This responsibility will fall upon the next government, regardless of who emerges victorious.
Aryaman Bhatnagar is a German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and a visiting fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.