It is curious that the Army which has had an ‘Incident Day’ scenario predicating most of its exercises ever since the Parliament terror attack did not execute its contingency operations in wake of the Pulwama car bombing.
The Army has earmarked forces on standby at a few hours’ notice both in Kashmir and on long-duration training along the border.
The idea is that a speedy reprisal can catch the adversary off guard, even if Pakistan – having engineered the terror strike – had cautioned its troops in anticipation. The best time was the night after the incident by when the fatalities figure was known and was of a justifiably high level for punitive retaliation. That the troops so earmarked have not been used indicates that national security establishment did not sign off on the contingency operation.
Instead, the Cabinet Committee on Security met the following day and the Prime Minister subsequently announced delegation to the military of a befitting reply at a place and time of its choosing. The military appears to be currently preparing for the same.
It is presumably held up in delivering a response not only by heightened levels of Pakistani alertness and ongoing snow fall and levels of snow in the upper reaches of the Line of Control, but also by the fortuitous presence of an eminent Saudi visitor, its controversial Crown Prince, successively in both countries.
The hiatus has been profitably put to use by the ruling party for appropriating the nationalist upsurge for its political ends.
The opposition is hobbled for the moment from the necessity to be showing the adversary a common front. As a result, while the ruling party’s prospects at the oncoming national elections were under cloud only a week back, it has been handed a windfall courtesy the lone wolf from Pulwama.
A lengthening of the hiatus between the terror provocation and the punitive reprisal can be expected for the dividend it is lending the ruling party. If and since electoral calculus seems to be informing decision making on the punitive operation, it is unlikely to happen.
This explains the Prime Minister putting distance between himself – the political master entrusted as decision maker – and the decision on the punitive operation, declaring that he has delegated the decision to the military by enabling them full freedom.
Though the public abdication of responsibility has rightly been called out by a university don with a stint in the national security system and a former military adviser in the system, commentary – including from the last northern army commander – has it that the military be left alone to implement its marching orders.
Giving the army a ‘free hand’ serves to justify the distance between the decision makers – whose political future should instead be on the block – and failure.
The operation can prove challenging twice-over – one in execution owing to want of surprise and the other in the escalation it provokes.
The ruling party that wishes a ticker tape parade, should also be prepared to hold the can in such of the operation going awry. Since this eventuality could exact a political price, only sound and fury can be afforded around a military retribution.
As for the costs of not doing anything militarily after all the rhetoric, there is the diplomatic option unfolding to provide recourse. The withdrawal of the most favoured nation tag not proving sufficient, India has prevailed on France to take up the blacklisting of the Jaish supremo and the talks at the financial action task force on terror are to resume in Paris soon.
There is also a Saudi initiative on the cards that can provide a face-saving opportunity to step down. Incidentally, the Crown Prince is proceeding onto China from India, whereupon the two friends of Pakistan may take a joint view on providing their friend – and India – a de-escalation window. Interest of the United Nations, petitioned by Pakistan in its letter to the Secretary General, can provide a loophole to wiggle out of a commitment trap.
Finally, inaction could also be laid at the military’s door as was done in previous cases succeeding the parliament attack and 26/11 when selective leaks showed up the military as unready. Alternatively, in a win-win situation, Modi can join the ranks of Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh for a sagacious decision on continuing restraint.
The good part of the ruling party’s privileging the veto of its electoral strategy over the announced military counter to the Pulwama attack is that it lends itself to military restraint. On this, he is in sync with sober strategists but not for reasons they adduce – such as the threat of nuclear escalation – leave alone can fathom.
Strategic rationality is not what informs this regime’s thinking but compulsions of longevity in office justified by the higher purpose of firming in Hindutva.
The episode having been used to draw ahead of the opposition that was threatening to catch up, the gains cannot be allowed to go up in smoke in case of a military operation ending up as an exchange of bloody noses between the two sides.
The interests of cultural nationalism require perpetuation in power of the regime. To place the onus on the shoulders of the military brass is a risk the cultural nationalist enterprise cannot take. However, the threat of an impending operation will be milked for sometime longer, with looming elections providing a setting to step down.
The renewed fissures with Pakistan will provide a fitting setting for Modi to resume his reign post elections. It is then he can make his bid to join Indira Gandhi in history as a warlord. Having emulated her in most characteristics such as authoritarian decision making, presiding over a proto-emergency, centralization of power in the prime minister’s office etc., he may yet bid for bridging the gap. Only he will postpone this till after elections, reason enough to ensure he falls short of this ambition.