Certain paragraphs from my recently published and released book 10 Flash Points 20 Years National Security Situations that Impacted India have created a brouhaha with the BJP even holding a press conference nine days before the formal unveiling of the book. Some of those passages appear in a chapter on 26/11. Let me quote these passages for the sake of context.
“It is evident that post 26/11, the Indian objectives had taken a drastic turn towards non-coercive diplomacy. Such an approach, therefore, lacks even the aspect of deterrence and is more difficult to execute. Moreover, it becomes difficult if not impossible to assuage inflamed public emotions that then rightly believe that no cost is being imposed on the belligerents for their murderous depredations. Such an approach naturally then lent itself to the ‘soft on terror’ cliché that stuck to the then UPA government like a noxious epithet for the remaining part of its first and second term. It is these reasons and, above all, the imperatives of political messaging for the current dispensation that since the September 2016 Uri attack, the policy of strategic restraint has given way to more tactical and forward leaning responses.”
“However, the nation and the world saw that India had just absorbed a body blow to its solar plexus without as much as batting an eyelid in retaliation. For a state that has no compunctions in brutally slaughtering hundreds of innocent people, restraint is not a sign of strength; it is perceived as a symbol of weakness. There comes a time when actions must speak louder than words. 26/11 was one such time when it just should have been done. It, therefore, is my considered opinion that India should have actioned a kinetic response in the days following India’s 9/11.”
“While it could be argued that the post-Uri surgical strikes in 2016 and air strikes on the Jaba hilltop in Balakot in 2019 did precisely this. However, the critical difference was that when these options were indeed operationalised, the punitive cost on Pakistan was negligible. Not only did they deny that a surgical strike had taken place, but more importantly, even the casualty figures put out in election rallies by the political dispensation in government was at a wide variance with assessments made by independent and non- partisan sources.”
What do the above three paragraphs indicate? They, in essence, sum up one of the myriad themes that runs along the spine of the book. India has unfortunately not been able to surmount the central dilemma that has bedevilled it since the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 as to how to respond to the depredations of non-state actors that Pakistan patronises and promotes. How efficacious is a conventional response to a terror attack in a nuclearised neighbourhood beyond the mere optics of it even today remains an open question. How would the escalatory spiral then play itself out is an issue that the book looks at in the context of the Balakot bombings.
India became the status quo power in South Asia in 1971 after the dismemberment of Pakistan into two parts. Pakistan became the revisionist power. Its sense of humiliation in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) made Pakistan operationalise the strategy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. From 1980 when Punjab emerged as the first frontier till today India has tried both strategic restraint and a forward leaning posture as characterised by the surgical strikes after Uri and the Balakot bombings but these have not resulted in any substantive behaviour change vis-a vis the deep state in Pakistan.
The book delves deep into the success of the Kargil War. The victory was made possible primarily because very early on in the day it was quite clear that elements of the regular Pakistani Army were deeply involved and there was a clear and identifiable geographical objective to clear and reclaim. The Indian Army and the air force were, therefore, able to deploy in strength to achieve the above target. However, when it comes to non-state actors India still finds itself out of depth.
The book focusses on the ignominious IC-814 hijack and the manner in which a bunch of hijackers at the instance of the Pakistani ISI-military combine extracted retribution for their humiliation in Kargil and also managed to free three dreaded terrorists as a trophy.
The book looks at the terror attack on the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly, the Indian Parliament as well as the Kaluchak terror attack and as to why the largest mobilisation of the Indian Army post 1971 in the form of Operation Parakram blunted the sword arm of coercive diplomacy.
The book tracks the trajectory of India’s tortured relationship with China and tries to analyze the triggers that led to the incursions in Eastern Ladakh and now in Arunachal Pradesh.
However, to return to 26/11, while I have always believed and continue to believe that India should have operationalised a kinetic response qua Pakistan, the fact that it did not happen was not surprising. For across the tenure of at least five administrations since the 1991 Janata Dal government led by V.P. Singh, a minority Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, the United Front governments of Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, respectively, and even the NDA/BJP dispensation of Atal Behari Vajpayee all followed the policy of strategic restraint qua terror emanating from Pakistan.
Even when the NDA/BJP government did operationalise the move from strategic patience to tactical aggression after the Uri and Pulwama terror attacks, the strategic gains have been minimalist. However, there was definitely a political windfall.
It, therefore, was not a question of polemical weakness or strength. Two different administrations tried two different strategies. Strategic patience qua tactical aggression. Neither seems to have worked. Can we say with any degree of certainty today that after the forward leaning approach adopted by the NDA/BJP there will not be another terror attack whose linkages will not be traced back to Pakistan? It, however, is a serious matter of discussion as to how Pakistan perceived the policy of strategic restraint. In my opinion, it perceived it as India’s weakness. Does it view the current posture differently? The jury remains out on that.