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A significant tactical or covert response is the most likely option

In Delhi and Mumbai, the chattering classes tailor their opinions to news cycles.

Till last week, it was an article of faith within the commentariat that the BJP would be defeated at the next General Election. Now, after the Pulwama attack, that wisdom has been turned on its head. The same people who predicted Narendra Modi’s departure now say that the BJP will sweep the polls. Patriotic sentiment will lead all Indians to unite behind Mr Modi, they say.

 

Both views are fundamentally flawed. The General Election is still wide open. And the terror attack may not necessarily influence people to vote for the BJP. Three months from now, voters may have new concerns. Anyway, it is also possible that an attack on Indian forces may be seen as a symptom of governmental weakness and not as a reason to unite behind the BJP.

 

   If Mr Modi is to reassure his supporters that he runs a strong government, he cannot sit idly by while Pakistan-backed terrorists attack India with impunity. He needs to react effectively.

 

   The question is: what kind of retaliation will work?

 

   During the Vajpayee regime, India responded to the Parliament attack by massing half a million troops on the Pakistan border and threatening war. Code-named Parakram, the operation yielded no tangible benefits and cost an estimated US $ 3 billion. As other nations intervened to prevent a potential nuclear conflict, Pakistan was the only beneficiary because Parakram demonstrated that the world would not let India take military action.

 

   When Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008, the Manmohan Singh government considered a military response but abandoned the idea, citing the example of Operation Parakram. India was assured by the US that Washington had put pressure on Islamabad and that strict action would be taken against the masterminds of the attacks. In fact, as we know now, these masterminds roam free, planning fresh attacks on India.

 

   On both occasions, there was consensus within the security establishment that a conventional war had ceased to be an option. The only effective response to the terror was covert action or a strategic strike.

 

   The problem was that while India has no covert capability in Pakistan, the Pakistanis have massive covert capability in India. There was broad agreement right after the failure of Operation Parakram that India desperately needed to develop such capabilities.

 

"At this stage of his Prime Ministership, with the election just months away, Mr Modi does not have the luxury of hoping that ‘diplomatic pressure’ will be enough to satisfy his core constituency."

   Despite this consensus, we were still not in a position to retaliate after the Mumbai attacks. So, when the BJP took office it indicated that it would develop these capabilities. The appointment of Ajit Doval, a highly regarded former intelligence officer as National Security Advisor was seen as key to this effort.

 

   So far, while Mr Doval has been effective in capturing economic offenders, whatever else he has done is not immediately visible. He has managed to get Deepak Talwar back to India but there is still no sign of Dawood Ibrahim.

 

   Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the government has not prepared a covert response to Pakistan in the event of a terror strike. It is normal for intelligence agencies and the security establishment to ‘game’ such scenarios and prepare adequate responses.

 

  That response may be the key to Mr Modi’s election strategy. If he can deliver a strong blow to Pakistan then he can send out the message that he is a tough leader who will avenge any attack on India.

 

   What can that response be?

 

   There are many possibilities. An attack on the headquarters of Jaish E Mohammad could be one such response. A drone strike to take out Masood Azhar may well seal Mr Modi’s re-election. Whether it is a commando mission, a missile attack or a drone strike, time is of the essence. Ideally, the operation should commence undetected and be over before the rest of the world can react.

 

   Admittedly, all of these options are difficult to execute and could rebound on the government if they fail. They are certain to provoke a threat of escalation from Pakistan and the international community will object. (Though it’s hard to see how the US, which routinely invades the sovereignty of other countries to strike at terrorists, could reasonably object.)

 

   But now that Mr Doval had had nearly five years to prepare a response and Mr Modi has shown himself to be a much greater risk taker than Manmohan Singh, a significant tactical or covert response is the most likely option. For it to be effective in terms of Indian public opinion, it has to take place within the next week or so.

 

    Will it happen?

 

   My guess is that something is planned. At this stage of his Prime Ministership, with the election just months away, Mr Modi does not have the luxury of hoping that ‘diplomatic pressure’ will be enough to satisfy his core constituency.

 

   His supporters expect much more. And Mr Modi will have to deliver.

 


 

Posted On: 19 Feb 2019 02:44 PM
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