Shortly after the prime minister made his now-famous trip to Lahore to hug Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, I wrote, on this page, that Narendra Modi was both bold and brave.
The boldness lay in his willingness to overturn more than a decade of anti-Pakistan rhetoric and to risk the ire of his hardcore supporters who treated ‘go to Pakistan’ as the ultimate insult.
The bravery was demonstrated in his willingness to forge ahead with a peace initiative even though he knew that elements in the Pakistani establishment were hostile to any improvement in relations with India. Such elements, I suggested, could organise a terror attack on India, aimed at destabilising the peace process. For Modi, who must have known this, to go to Lahore anyway was risky, dangerous and, yes, brave.
The terror strike in Pathankot — which occurred the day after my article appeared — proved my worst fears were correct. It is still not clear how the prime minister will respond to Pakistan (and to Washington, which encouraged Modi to reach out to Sharif) or whether his boldness and bravery, much hailed at the time, have now rebounded on him.
But in the aftermath of Pathankot some things are, nevertheless, quite clear.
First of all, Pathankot was as much our failure as it was a ‘betrayal’ by Pakistan. When the attack was launched, the Indian security establishment (and the media) regarded it as an attempt by freelance jihadis to sabotage the peace process. It was inevitable, we said; just part of the script for every India-Pakistan initiative. So there was no hysteria and only a little anger.
The response changed on the second day, after the triumphalism of the first evening when the Union home minister hailed our forces for successfully foiling the attack was exposed as premature. Most Indians were shocked to discover that not only had the terrorists not been ‘neutralised’ (the word of the day), but that there were more of them than the security establishment had believed.
As soldiers continued to die and gun battles raged, the mood of the country suddenly changed from we-stopped-the-inevitable-attack to vitriolic anger. Pakistan was now seen as two-faced and deserving of a forceful and fitting response.
Unfortunately for Modi, that is still the mood and it deeply limits his room for manoeuvre.
But ask yourself this: If the attack had been foiled on day one itself or if the government had not fanned public expectations by bragging about an easy victory, would the public mood have changed so dramatically? Would the peace process still be in such jeopardy?
Second, part of the public anger with Pakistan stems from insecurity. Are we really such easy prey? Is it so simple for Pakistanis to breach India’s defences? Are those who are supposed to protect us so inept?
We saw the same kind of response right after 26/11. And many of those who voted the BJP into power believed that the Modi regime would strengthen India’s security apparatus so that responses to terror were not as confused and disorganised as the Congress government’s reactions to 26/11 were.
No such luck.
Instead, we have had the horrifying spectacle of nearly every agency involved in fighting the terrorists in Pathankot blaming the other. The military has blamed the national security adviser and chastised him for sending in the National Security Guard and not leaving the armed forces to protect their own base.
The civilian security establishment has leaked to the media that the Air Force had enough warning but failed to protect its base. The Punjab government has blamed the BSF for letting the terrorists in. And everybody (with the possible exception of Sukhbir Singh Badal) has been united in condemnation of the Punjab police.
It is a mess that inspires no confidence at all in our ability to fight the terrorism that we must accept will be the inevitable consequence of any peace initiative.
Third, just as Modi’s room for manoeuvre is limited, so is Nawaz Sharif’s. First of all, he can’t even act against terrorism in Pakistan — where thousands die in terror attacks — so how is he going to stop the same terrorists from exporting their mayhem to India? Then, there’s the army factor. Modi was, apparently, assured that the Pakistan army supported the peace initiative. That’s now open to question. What good is a deal with the fragile civilian establishment if the army is not on board?
We also underestimate the power of Pakistani public opinion. Pakistanis may be happy with talk of peace but they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of handing over jihadis and top militants to Indian authorities. So, in effect, there is very little that Sharif can do in response to Indian demands for action.
That leaves a final factor: Washington. It is no secret that the United States has been urging India and Pakistan to make up so that it can get Pakistan to devote more troops to the Afghan frontier. The Pakistan army does not want to do this so it ensures that tensions with India remain high. That way it can refuse to shift troops from the border with India.
It is time now for New Delhi to tell Washington that yes, India wants peace but only on the condition that the US pressures Pakistan to crack down on terrorists who target India. While we struggle to get Pakistan to act against the likes of Hafiz Saeed, Islamabad has routinely extraordinarily rendered hundreds of terrorists to Washington without ever bothering with the legal process.
So yes, the peace process should continue. But only after we put our own security establishment in order. And after the US gets Pakistan to crack down on anti-Indian terrorists.
Otherwise, just as Lahore I was followed by Kargil and Lahore II by Pathankot — the same vicious cycle will continue.
(The views expressed are personal)