26/11 has no parallels... it needed a kinetic response, says Congress MP Manish Tewari

Both NDA and UPA have tried to manage the challenges from Pakistan and China in different ways. In terms of trying to get peace, neither has succeeded, Tewari said.
Manish Tewari says no question of leaving the Congress party. (Hindustan Times)
Manish Tewari says no question of leaving the Congress party. (Hindustan Times)
Updated on Dec 02, 2021 11:31 PM IST
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Congress parliamentarian and former minister, Manish Tewari, has caused a stir with his book, 10 Flashpoints, 20 Years: National Security Situations that have Impacted India. In an interview with Harinder Baweja, he speaks about the surgical strikes, the Mumbai attacks, and the UPA and NDA’s handling of security issues.

Edited excerpts:

You write in the book that the country does not have a national security doctrine. The Modi government certainly believes it does -- It has authored two surgical strikes against Pakistan.

Substantive changes have taken place over the last two decades, and India is now not only looking at how to deal with hijackings and non-state actors. If you look at what the PLA is doing, and the increased weaponisation of the cyber domain, it is clear that India is dealing with new challenges on the security front; challenges we still don’t have a response to. Vis-a-vis Pakistan, the optics suggests that the government has been aggressive but the hard question it should ask itself is: Has there been a change in Pakistan’s strategy to use non-state actors? The answer is, no.

You have looked at flashpoints over 20 years. Who has fared better on the security front: UPA or NDA?

The challenges are of the same order. In the case of Pakistan, the Modi-led NDA did initiate forward-leaning measures through the Uri and Balakot strikes but the jury is still out on whether Pakistan has changed its behaviour; whether it has stopped deploying non-state actors. Both NDA and UPA have tried to manage the challenges from Pakistan and China in different ways. In terms of trying to get peace, neither has succeeded.

To be more precise, who has handled national security better, Modi or Manmohan Singh?

To me, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. I have raised the question of why there was no kinetic response by the Manmohan Singh government after the barbaric Mumbai attacks in 2008. Yes, the Modi government attempted surgical strikes but did the strikes alter Pakistan’s behaviour? The other important question is: Was the Modi government trying to address a domestic audience or trying to bring about a qualitative change in the security situation? To my mind, the Modi government has fallen between these two stools.

Are you saying then that the Uri and Balakot strikes were aimed at the domestic audience?

The Pulwama attack happened on the cusp of an election. The Kargil war was fought under a caretaker government. For every national security action, there will be domestic repercussions. That cannot be the defining impulse. Did Indira Gandhi create Bangladesh to win an election? No, she just won the election. Nobody accused Vajpayee or Indira Gandhi. Similarly, I would not accuse Modi of doing Balakot for political considerations. The question, and I have raised it earlier, is whether there has been a change in Pakistan’s behavior? The answer is No.

You have said, and controversially so, that kinetic action should’ve followed the Mumbai attacks. Did you take up the issue with PM Mammohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi at the time? The UPA stayed in power for six years after and you were the national spokesperson at the time.

The 26/11 attacks didn’t happen in isolation. They were a culmination of a nasty proxy war starting with Kargil, terror attacks in Kashmir and the attack on Parliament. 26/11 was a nasty finale to the humiliation meted out in Kargil. On November 28, when the Mumbai attacks were still in progress, when I briefed the media, I had said that we should initiate a kinetic response. I expressed my view as the national spokesman. I was neither in government nor in legislature, at the point and there was no occasion to take it up with the leadership.

Would you have written about kinetic action after 26/11 if you were not part of the 23 leaders that wrote a letter to the Congress President asking for sweeping changes in the party and a full-time President? Is it an attempt at selling the book?

It has nothing to do with selling the book. I have been more than fulsome in my praise of Manmohan Singh vis-a-vis his handling of the economy and the nuclear deal. The group of 23 has nothing to do with national security. The reason I wrote this book is because there is not enough discussion and debate about national security and we think it can simply be left to some strategic experts.

Is the book an attempt to cozy up to the BJP?

There is no question of leaving the Congress party. I have been a Congressman for the last 40 years. In the book, I have been far more critical of the BJP’s handling of national security issues.

India’s relations with China have deteriorated...

The UPA government under Manmohan Singh maintained a modicum of stability with China. Intrusions in 2013 in Depsang were cleared within 13 days. Relations with China, under Modi, have steadily gone downhill, Modi has failed the China test. We lost 20 soldiers in Galwan and the downhill (slide) continues. That’s the reason why I say that Modi has failed the China test.

In the book, you raise the question of why non-conventional means not been actively explored. What are you hinting at?

As a democracy, there is a dilemma in the echelons of power, when it comes to hitting out at the fountainheads of terror…

You mean Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar? You mean, target them, like the US did Osama bin Laden?

Yes. The reason we have not gone down that street is because of the ethical dilemma and how that would be perceived internationally. So, in Uri and in Balakot, India’s response was aimed at the larger Pakistani state rather than the kingpins of the terror strike. 26/11 was a watershed in the sheer barbarity of the attack. It has few parallels. That’s why I have argued that there should have been a kinetic response.

To end, what’s the way forward on the national security front? To quote from your book -- nuclear tests have not brought strategic windfall, coercive diplomacy has not entirely worked, nor have friendly overtures.

The way forward is two-fold: a well articulated security doctrine and a policy that goes beyond partisan lines. Right now, we are not even willing to debate China in Parliament.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Harinder Baweja anchors special projects for Hindustan Times. She has been a journalist for three decades and has focussed on covering conflict zones, including Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Saturday, January 29, 2022