By The Nation
When the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba staged a daring terror attack in 2008 on two Mumbai luxury hotels and a train station, killing 166 people in all, India’s then-premier Manmohan Singh exercised extreme caution. Incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at the time chief minister of Gujarat state, and he didn’t mince words in condemning Singh’s failure to strike back at Pakistan forcibly. Years later he was still saying that his predecessor lacked the “courage” to order retaliatory air strikes.
Being part of the political opposition has the benefit of allowing government critics to talk tough with relative immunity. They can advocate radical action safe in the knowledge that future fallout will be easily contained. But Modi seems a different breed.
After a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir last month, he sent his jets into Pakistan to hammer a suspected terrorist camp. It was the first time India deployed air power against Pakistan since their 1971 war, and it was at the behest of Modi the prime minister, not Modi the opposition leader.
This new level of aggressiveness might be tied to India’s aspiration to be a superpower, and almost certainly to the fact that national elections are scheduled for spring. Showing he’s tough will only boost Modi’s popularity, but he’s taken a terrible risk. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir and both countries are, of course, now armed with nuclear weapons. An atomic strike from either side seems unlikely, but Pakistan quickly stepped up the tit-for-tat conflict with air attacks on military installations in India. An Indian fighter jet was shot down in a dogfight, the pilot taken into custody and then freed as a goodwill gesture by Pakistan’s premier, Imran Khan.
It is Khan who has come out ahead, diplomatically speaking, in inviting New Delhi to discuss steps that might restore calm. For his part, Modi last week thundered about “a new India … that will return the damage done by terrorists – with interest!” We await with trepidation the two nations’ next moves, but less clear will be any shift in how murderous Pakistan-based militant groups operate.
If Modi is being genuinely hard-line, as opposed to feeding rhetoric to voters, the world can expect India’s relationship with Pakistan to become much rockier.
It does not suffice to blame Pakistan alone for its harbouring of terror groups. Modern history in the region is stained with instances of outsider meddling, from Britain’s partitioning off of Hindus and Muslims to the three wars over disputed Kashmir. India played a key role in splitting up Pakistan, supporting the rebels who created Bangladesh. Two decades later, Pakistan was recruiting Islamist militants, veterans of the war that drove Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan, to wage war against Indian troops in Kashmir and on innocent civilians in Mumbai.
Still, India’s use of air power against Pakistan was significant, a wholly unexpected breaching of a line long etched in the sand. Now that the line has been crossed, the international community cannot afford to sit back and watch events unfold. Pakistan must be compelled to deal with the extremists to whom it grants sanctuary. If it takes firm action on that cancer, India will have to reciprocate in some way. That could begin with Modi talking less like a politician and more like a statesman.