In just a couple of weeks, “surgical strike” has become a magical phrase in India. It radiates with patriotism and national pride so much so that Hindi media uses it untranslated. The phrase, of course, has nothing to do with surgery or hospitals or doctors; surgeons don’t “strike” at patients. The way things are going, probably it has nothing to do with generals and jawans either. It has become so politicised that it now denotes political action politically conceived for political exploitation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first leader to recognise the negative nature of the politics that developed around India’s military operation against Pakistani terrorist bases on September 28. As a propaganda war raged over the operation, the atmosphere was vitiated by allegations and counter-allegations unbecoming of a mature nation. What’s more, it detracted from the valour of the armed forces. Recognising the unhealthy nature of this pow-wow, Modi told his people to avoid “chest-thumping” over the military strike. That was sound advice.
Strategically and diplomatically, too, it was wise not to go boasting. Having gained the immediate objectives of the strike, public bragging can achieve nothing militarily while it can generate vengefulness in the enemy. A humiliated enemy will focus on retaliatory action, especially when it has the advantage of non-state actors at its beck and call.
Modi was careful enough to follow his own advice during his much-awaited speech at the Dussehra function in Lucknow. He said Ravana was “the first terrorist” of the world, but did not go beyond that. He did not dwell much on the strikes against Pakistan and, more significantly, did not accuse previous governments of not carrying out operations of a similar nature against targets in Pakistan.
But once again the more enthusiastic BJP ideologues have chosen to ignore Modi’s advice. (On an earlier occasion, when he had condemned cow vigilantes as anti-social, the vigilantes had the gumption to turn around and condemn him. On Dussehra day, RSS chief Bhagwat chose in effect to chastise Modi by saying that cow protectors should not be mistaken for vigilantes.) This time the momentum of politics, accelerated by the approaching elections in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have propelled ideologues towards rejecting the prime ministerial guideline.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh looked like he was carried away by the enthusiasm of the Ramleela crowd at Lucknow. In an obvious reference to the “surgical strike”, he said the “Prime Minister has proved to the world that India is not weak”. Defence Minister Parrikar went completely political. Earlier strikes during the UPA regime, he said, were border skirmishes carried out by local teams; only the latest action merited to be called a surgical strike. He said the big credit for the decision went to the Prime Minister.
In a few sentences in his Mumbai speech, he turned the Prime Minister’s advice on its head, gave the armed forces a minor role and sharpened the enemy’s enmity to a point that cannot do us any good. He did a double chest-thumping—how his government took action previous governments did not, and how the latest action has damaged the enemy’s psyche. His words bristled with bravado: “Pakistan was given opportunities to build relations. But the response was not forthcoming. It turned into a predictable pattern which has been broken by the surgical strikes.”
We can imagine how these words would be seen in Pakistan. There will now be no scope for talks of any kind unless the Prime Minister goes out of his way to undo the damage. Sections of the electorate in India will of course feel an adolescent thrill. BJP leaders have announced that the surgical strikes and the Uniform Civil Code will be the main weapons in the UP election campaign. Is that what it all boils down to? Our jawans risk their lives fighting terrorists only to help a political party win a few votes? Can short-term political calculations override long-term national interests?
Modi’s position against propagandising the strike against terrorists in Pakistan must have been a carefully considered one. He must have realised that war with Pakistan was not an option. Only negotiations against a background of international collaboration of a meaningful nature—on economic and trade programmes for example—can show a way forward. This becomes all the more obvious with the increasing involvement of Iran, Russia and China as well as the US in the area. If domestic politics determines external relations, India will lose more than it gains.