Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally revealed the broad elements of India’s post-Uri response, delivering a nuanced message to Pakistan during a speech at a public event in Kozikhode on Saturday.
The strategy appears to have three key elements -- improving domestic morale and mood by changing the narrative from obvious failure to little known successes, distinguishing between Pakistani people and rulers and focusing on common challenges to capture the moral high ground, and a signal to Islamabad-Rawalpindi that it has enough internal vulnerabilities and keeping the doors for covert action open.
Modi highlighted the successes of India’s forces. In the past few months, the army foiled 17 infiltration attempts -- and thus 17 possible terror attacks. In recent times, he claimed, 110 terrorists have been killed. At a time when the national mood is dominated by the setback at Uri, with questions about how it could happen, and there are doubts about the strength and capabilities of the Indian state, this is an obvious attempt to change the narrative. The situation, the PM is signalling, is not as dire and could be worse. India need not get immersed in darkness.
But along with the internal focus, Modi focused on Pakistan. For long, the Indian establishment has recognised the heterogeneity of the Pakistani establishment -- particularly the distinction between the elected civilian rulers and the military-ISI complex.
But Modi publicly articulated another distinction -- between the rulers and the Pakistani people. Modi dared the Pakistani people to urge their rulers to fight another war – a war against hunger, poverty, unemployment, and for development. India too would fight this war. It was a remarkably interesting move to focus on India and Pakistan’s common developmental challenges rather than the differences at a moment when the mood of his own party is only confrontational.
“I found his approach deeply innovative. Modi went beyond normal diplomatic channels and used a variant of strategic communication to reach out directly to the people of Pakistan,” commodore (retd) C Uday Bhaskar, director, Society for Policy Studies, told HT. “No Indian PM has done it, and I think it will rattle the Pakistani leadership.”
But the politics could not be ignored.
And that is why -- along with the signal that there are possible grounds for convergence -- Modi sent a warning. He spoke of Pakistan as an exporter of terror, other countries being a victim of its designs, and how Delhi would not forget Uri. This was predictable. The new dimension was the PM asking the Pakistani people to question their rulers about why their own country had not been able to deal with issues and grievances of different regions. This included, Modi said, issues of people in PoK, Gilgit, Sindh, Balochistan, and of Pashtuns. He reminded them of the loss of East Pakistan – now Bangladesh -- as yet another instance of the failure of those who ruled the country.
Modi did not harp on what India would do, or not do, in these areas. But it was a signal that Delhi was well aware of Pakistan’s internal vulnerabilities and may not hesitate to capitalise on it. By speaking of Bangladesh, Modi was reminding Pakistani establishment of a wound it has not yet recovered from and what India was capable of. By speaking of Balochistan, the PM was following up on his reference to the region in the Independence Day address. By speaking of Pashtuns, he opened a new front -- do remember that Pakistan feels insecure about the large Pashtun population in Afghanistan, their trans-border links, and Kabul’s refusal to recognise the Durand Line, the border with Pakistan. By speaking of Sindh, Modi was also reminding Pakistan of the dark days that Karachi saw not so long back. Pakistan has long accused India of fomenting trouble in the region, especially through the MQM.
Bhaskar believes that Modi is signalling that he is serious about drawing international attention to some of these issues. “He is clearly willing to open up spaces, which were considered redlines by earlier generations of policy-makers.”
So what do we know about Delhi’s mood at the end of Modi’s speech? Any direct military response is now extremely unlikely. India will focus on strengthening domestic security mechanisms. It will continue to make efforts to diplomatically isolate and expose Pakistan, while keeping the moral high ground. And it may seek to leverage Pakistan’s internal vulnerabilities.