By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Sept 16
In a nuanced and careful speech on Saturday that had components of both pragmatism and jingoism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi skilfully created a narrative for deflecting war hysteria in India, redefining the burgeoning confrontation with Pakistan in terms of a Lagaan-style contest for eliminating poverty, illiteracy and deprivation in the two countries.
In Lagaan, a Hindi-language, Oscar-nominated 2001 motion picture, a land tax dispute between pre-independence British administrators and residents of a small, central Indian village was settled through a cricket match between the two sides (the Indians won!). On Saturday, with an inflamed India looking to Mr Modi for his first statement after Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba jihadis killed 18 Indian soldiers in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Mr Modi appropriated former Pakistani premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s threat of a 1,000-year war with India, challenging Pakistan to a 1000-year war to whittle away poverty, illiteracy and child mortality.
Mr Modi’s speech, delivered to a Bharatiya Janata Party gathering in Kozhikode, was a masterly balancing act. With the national temper at fever-pitch after Uri and the media resounding with anti-Pakistan warmongering --- such as BJP leader Ram Madhav’s threat to extract a jaw for every tooth --- Mr Modi had to placate public anger in India, while simultaneously defusing a situation that could only escalate if India extracted vengeance through cross-border military strikes on terrorist infrastructure or the Pakistani Army (numerous Indian commentators see little difference between the two). As it turned out, Mr Modi delivered a carefully crafted message that favoured peace, while delivering enough tough talk to placate Indian anger.
Mr Modi led, as expected, with a frontal attack on Pakistan for being the global leader in exporting terrorism. He followed up by apparently repeating, but actually toning down the promise of retaliation he had delivered just after the Uri attack. On that day he had tweeted: “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished”, raising widespread expectations of retaliatory military action. On Saturday, he thundered: “The sacrifice of our 18 soldiers will not be forgotten. We will ensure that the international community works to isolate you.” This suggested that working to make Pakistan an international pariah would be sufficient retribution. For those in Pakistan who carefully parse the New Delhi tealeaves, the juxtaposition of cause and effect was significant, “the sacrifice of 18 soldiers” being the cause; and “the isolation of Pakistan” being the effect. Nor did the PM mention or endorse his military’s earlier threat to retaliate at “a time and place of [its] own choosing”.
Mr Modi’s layered messaging will take time to be clearly understood within Pakistan. Given the prevailing climate of confrontation, even the moderate English-language media in Pakistan interpreted the speech in the light of the threats it contains, not the outreach. The headlines in Daily Times say: “Modi vows campaign to ‘isolate’ Pakistan”. Dawn headlined: “Modi says India will work to ‘isolate’ Pakistan internationally”. Only the relatively sophisticated Express Tribune headlined its coverage: “India backs off after frenzied war rhetoric”. Pakistani audiences would also be keenly attuned to Mr Modi’s taunts about unrest in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, so not much can be expected in terms of immediate win-over. Only when the dust settles on the current confrontation will the Pakistani media and the populace take note of the Indian PM’s ground breaking outreach. Towards that day, Mr Modi differentiated between Pakistan’s leaders and the people of that country; a radical departure from New Delhi’s customary lumping together of Pakistan’s political class, the public and even its terrorists. But the most important component of Mr Modi’s speech was to de-escalate current tensions. Policy analysts in Rawalpindi (Pakistan Army headquarters) will immediately note that the battle Mr Modi is talking up is not military, but a long-term developmental campaign relating to the uplift of the masses.
When Mr Modi borrowed the inspiring phraseology of one of his predecessors, Atal Behari Vajpayee, about dealing with Kashmir in the ambit of “insaaniyat, jamhooriyat aur Kashmiriyat” (humanism, democracy and Kashmir’s syncretic culture), it carried little conviction, making Mr Modi seem like a peacock in borrowed feathers. But his rousing call from Kozhikode --- “I want to tell the people of Pakistan. We are ready to fight you, if you have the courage. Come, we'll fight poverty in our country and you fight in yours. Let's see who eradicates poverty first” --- could become his signature initiative in India-Pakistan relations.
This depends on whether and how Mr Modi instrumentalises this rhetoric to resurrect India-Pakistan relations, which are currently in the deepest freeze since the 26/11 Mumbai strikes. Sceptics are already declaring that the Pakistani deep state --- the military-bureaucratic syndicate that call the shots in that country --- does not particularly care about development. That, however, is an outdated argument. With Washington’s funding to Islamabad becoming increasingly conditional and New Big Brother China far less munificent than Uncle Sam, the Pakistani establishment recognises fully that a sickly and under-developed economy can no longer afford a military that is capable of warding off India.
As the contours of Mr Modi’s new direction come more clearly into view, he will face flak from opposition parties for back-tracking on his strident campaign rhetoric about how toughly he would handle Pakistan, and about what a strong PM he would be in contrast to Manmohan Singh. The Congress Party will heckle him for citing India in his speech as a globally-respected, well-developed state that “exports software to the world while [Pakistan’s] leaders export terrorism”; with this modern India presumably having been built during the “60 years of Congress misrule” that Mr Modi routinely slams. Even so, the PM has done well to de-escalate the current crisis. It makes little sense to confront Pakistan, for benefits that are not readily apparent, only because of a hard line taken earlier.
Anti-Modi sceptics are already voicing fear that domestic politics might induce the PM to balance his conciliation of Pakistan by doubling down on domestic intolerance and galvanising campaigns like the beef ban and love jihad, perceived as anti-Muslim. It is incumbent on Modi to alleviate these fears. Finally, Pakistan can be managed only up to a point; beyond that remains in the hands of that country’s unpredictable leaders. What Mr Modi does have full control over is his management of Kashmir and the initiating of a calibrated, all-of-government campaign to defuse tensions and address long-standing problems in that state. That would not just solve a major internal problem for New Delhi, but snatch away from Pakistan its most potent instrument for meddling in India.