Uncle Sam, your air strike hit Rahul, not Modi!

Last Updated 23 March 2019, 09:52 IST

In 2014, it was Mani Shankar Aiyar with his ‘chaiwala’ remark, now it’s Sam Pitroda with his ‘did we hit Balakot? We can’t blame Pakistan for terror attacks’ idiocy. During every election season, someone in the Congress party seems to contract the foot-in-the-mouth disease.

And for once, you can’t fault Prime Minister Narendra Modi for reacting the way he did. Neither Modi himself nor the Air Force have made any claims about how many terrorists were killed; those were made by that part of the media that has become servile to Modi, and by his loud-mouthed party leaders.

The prime minister did use tough language, he claimed credit for the airstrike and projected himself as the only strong leader around. But none of it can be faulted. At such a time, the leader of the nation has to speak tough; he did give the go-ahead for the airstrike and so should be given credit for that. The opposition shouldn’t have been so cussed about giving him credit where due. And, in any case, with a tough election at hand, he wasn’t going to wait for the opposition to give him credit, he took it himself in full measure.

Now, one may point out that Indira Gandhi never went around boasting about cutting Pakistan into half in 1971 (and doing so in the face of grave threats from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger). She did not boast about sending off troops to pre-emptively seize the Siachen heights to prevent Pakistan from doing so in 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi did not boast about the fact that it was under his watch that India first began to project force all around the region – to good effect in Operation Cactus in the Maldives, but to terrible results in Sri Lanka, which eventually cost him his life. A Time magazine cover in 1988, long before Modi came into mainstream politics, was titled ‘Super India – The Next Military Power’. The opposition did not praise Rajiv, but he perhaps didn’t care much for it.

Nor did Jawaharlal Nehru boast about starting India’s nuclear programme even before Independence and nurturing it against American (and Soviet) efforts to kill it. But then, all of them had opposition leaders who showed the generosity of spirit to acknowledge what they had done. For instance, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who sat in the opposition benches through the reign of all three of them and paid them glowing tributes when they deserved it and berated them soundly when criticism was called for.

Similarly, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh (none of whom had the luxury of a majority mandate like Nehru, Indira and Rajiv enjoyed or Modi currently enjoys) just did what they had to do for national security and did not brag about it. During Rao and Vajpayee’s time, there were still opponents who, at least, had the courtesy to acknowledge their achievements and to carry them forward.

The decline in relations between the ruling leaders and opposition leaders started during Manmohan Singh’s time when BJP leaders – from LK Advani to Arun Jaitley to finally Narendra Modi – resorted to downright ridicule and abuse of a prime minister. As a result, unfortunately, the relations between ruling leaders and opposition leaders today is filled with bitterness and hatred for each other, which worsens during elections. It’s in this blinding atmosphere that perhaps the opposition has not been able to recognise or acknowledge the military-diplomatic significance of the Balakot airstrike, while Modi, in turn, uses both the airstrike and his contempt for the opposition as fuel for election rhetoric.

Changed Dynamic

What’s the military-diplomatic significance of the Balakot airstrike? Many questions have been raised and doubts expressed about the airstrike. But here is the bare fact: on the morning of February 26, the Indian Air Force’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets bombed a place deep inside Pakistani territory. This much was acknowledged first by Pakistan’s Director-General, Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) Asif Ghafoor. It was only hours later that Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale addressed a press conference, confirmed the action and said it was a “non-military, pre-emptive strike” against terrorists.

India struck deep inside Pakistani territory for the first time since 1971. It was also the first time that a nuclear power had conducted an airstrike on another nuclear power’s territory. That’s all that matters in military-diplomatic terms. Did our fighters fly across the Line of Control and into Pakistani airspace to hit Balakot? Were the targets hit or did they ‘drop’ their “payload” on some trees on the way back, as Ghafoor claimed? Did the airstrike kill 250 or 300 or 400 terrorists, as Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and other BJP leaders claimed?

None of these matter to a central issue that had plagued India’s response to Pakistan’s low-cost proxy war against India for 30 years, and especially in the last 20 years since both countries came out in the open as nuclear powers and Pakistan wrote for itself a ‘touch-me-not’ nuclear doctrine. Under that doctrine, Pakistan would hit India with nuclear weapons if its survival was threatened in any way at all. And, given the asymmetry in size and strategic depth between the two countries, it does not take much to threaten Pakistan’s survival. So, it reaches out for its nuclear button almost as soon as hostilities begin. That was what restrained the hand of Vajpayee from crossing the Line of Control during the Kargil War in 1999 and during Operation Parakram in 2001-2 in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001.

When Pakistan resorted to using terrorist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad against India to wage a low-cost war under its nuclear umbrella, the Indian military had to come up with options to give to the political leadership to punish Pakistan for acts of terrorism without triggering a nuclear war.

After Operation Parakram, the Indian Army began to evolve a ‘Cold Start’ war doctrine, under which Indian conventional forces would quickly attack and seize Pakistani territory and strategic posts/assets when hostilities began (and before the international community could intervene) and force Pakistan to sue for peace. In response, the Pakistani military lowered the threshold to a nuclear war even further. It developed tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons and it declared that if Indian troops enter Pakistani territory, Pakistan would use these low-yield nuclear weapons on them on its own territory. It was one of the reasons why Manmohan Singh had to be ultra-cautious in responding to the 26/11 Mumbai attack in 2008. While armchair social media warriors of the BJP’s ultra-nationalist variety can today call Manmohan Singh names, Singh as prime minister had to be mindful of the fact that while he would be safe in Delhi, he could well be sending thousands of troops to potential death under a mushroom cloud if he chose to go to war. But it was under his government that the capability for a Balakot-type airstrike was acquired. More on that later.

The significance of the Balakot airstrike is that it has effectively shown to Pakistan and the world that the Indian military has options – precision airstrikes being one – to hit terrorist havens on Pakistani soil without breaching even Pakistan’s ultra-low nuclear threshold. And that India’s political leadership, regardless of whether Modi is at the helm or Rahul Gandhi, can therefore give the military “a free hand to respond to terrorist attacks” – as Modi could and did.

Which means, Pakistan’s proxy war against India will no longer be a low-cost option for it. It will have to pay an increasingly heavy price with each attack. As America warned Pakistan on Thursday, if there’s another terrorist attack on India by Pakistan-based terrorists, then all bets are off as to how India will respond. For a number of years, Pakistan got to play a strategy that in nuclear parlance is called ‘rationality of irrationality’ – behaving irrationally oneself to force the other person to behave rationally. Now, the roles are reversed.

Did the IAF fighters cross the Line of Control and fly into Pakistani airspace? It does not matter if they did or not. Modi can use “ghar mein guss ke marenge” political rhetoric to win votes, but modern airpower is all about stand-off warfare – to hit enemy targets from a safe distance. There is no heroism in it, and it is not required. The military objective is to hit the enemy, any which way you can, without allowing the enemy to hit us.

Did the IAF kill 250 or 300 or 400 terrorists as Amit Shah and friends claimed? What is the exact number? Did we even hit the target?

It does not matter. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. Maybe our intelligence was faulty and there were no terrorists holed up in the Balakot camp at the time. Maybe we missed the target this time. But can Pakistan or the terrorists be sure that our fighters will miss the target next time, or that our intelligence will be faulty next time? Indeed, we may not even use fighters next time, it could be something else.

Of course, this is not to say that Pakistan will now be forever deterred from trying to hurt India. Most likely, Pakistan will ‘eat grass if it must’ and come up with some new way to get back at us, sooner or later. Then, we will have to deal with it afresh.

If the Congress wants to regain some of its own sheen, it should not attack Modi over the airstrike, it should give him credit where it is due – for providing leadership – and remind him and the country that he was able to do so because governments and prime ministers before him had enabled him to. Here’s how:

The Mirage 2000 fighters that carried out the airstrike were bought during Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s time in the 1980s; the decision to upgrade them with modern avionics, weapons and sensors was taken and the $2.5 billion contract was signed in 2011 during Manmohan Singh’s time (they began to be delivered from 2015 onwards); the Spice 2000 bunker buster bomb was also contracted for from Israel during Singh’s time and trialled in 2010-11 for Mirage integration; the Sukhoi-30 MKI air dominance fighters that patrolled the skies during the airstrike were contracted for in 1997 during the United Front government when Mulayam Singh Yadav was Defence minister (and this was a big buy – 272 of them with option for more -- with technology transfer so that HAL today manufactures it from raw material stage and guarantees their lifetime maintenance and spares, unlike Modi’s Rafale purchase); the AWACS were bought during Vajpayee’s and Manmohan Singh’s time; and the aerial refuellers used were bought during Manmohan Singh’s UPA government.

There was not a single platform or weapon system that was bought during Modi’s time. He had everything in place to be able to make the decision to go in for a precision airstrike. What’s more, as many international observers have commented, the restraint that the previous prime ministers had exercised in dealing with Pakistan had given Modi the international credibility and political currency to undertake the airstrike without either the West or China berating India for it.

So, Uncle Sam, just like I would appeal to NRI bhakts and American corporate bhakts to lay off and not try to influence Indian democracy and the voters’ choice in any way, I should also like to tell you, too, to lay off, please. We Indians will ask the questions that need to be asked.

(Published 23 March 2019, 03:36 IST)

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