The terrorists and masterminds of the Pathankot attack evidently did not want the recent bilateral cheer to last. In less than 10 days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore, which prompted hope that 2016 will see a different tenor in India-Pakistan relations as opposed to the recriminations seen last year, terrorists attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot under the cover of darkness on Saturday morning. NSG personnel were rushed to Pathankot prior to the attack acting on intelligence but the fidayeen operation has resulted in heavy casualties for Indian security forces, even as the detail of the assault is not yet fully known.
The attack puts pressure on the NDA government in view of Mr Modi’s bold visit to reset bilateral ties. It is an outrage but New Delhi must still persist with its policy of engaging Islamabad. Such an attack has long been expected as an upswing in ties has usually coincided with terrorist strikes in recent years. It is a fact that the Pakistani establishment is by no means monolithic in character and various elements work at cross purposes, often acting to undermine the forward-looking efforts of its civilian government. India’s policy must be guided by discerning the motivations of the masterminds. The attack was geared to drive a wedge between Mr Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, who are attempting to bridge strategic differences and explore regional cooperation. For that matter, the two attacks in Punjab at Pathankot and Gurdaspur (in July) appear expressly aimed at undermining the possibility of more economic exchange between the two provinces of Punjab in both the countries. Saturday’s attack could also be designed to sow fresh suspicion in Indian minds about the intent of Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif, as many will be quick to assign responsibility to Rawalpindi.
The Pathankot attack is stuff of the challenge that non-State actors pose to policymakers. It is also meant to test the resolve of the Centre to see if outraged domestic opinion can unsettle its focus on broader policy goals. Resiling from engagement is just the kind of reaction that jihadis want. New Delhi must effectively use the NSA channel, which discusses terrorism, to unravel the conspiracy behind such attacks and convey to Islamabad that an attack on an air force base is a red line that warrants clear action against the perpetrating group. The Opposition, including the Congress, must back NDA’s approach of continuing dialogue while being firm on terror.