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March 29, 2019

Why Modi will think twice

Opinion

March 29, 2019

Had Balakot and the next day gone per the plan, Modi would have been in his starry heavens. It did not. Instead, it brought grief to the entire edifice carved to build Modi another political success.

Having lost in a few state elections, some of those critical, Modi and his BJP were in dire straits with the May 2019 elections on the anvil. A successful retort to Pulwama inside Pakistani territory with India’s perceptively superior conventional military strength would have reinforced his credentials of a consequential leader no end; his 56-inch chest notwithstanding. Except that the best of plans are laid waste as soon as the first round fires – the vagaries of war. India and Modi’s pride stood punctured on Day-2.

So what would have Modi been contemplating on the evening of February 27? He would have surely been hurt and stinging but a caution had been thrown at him. Were he to follow his vengeful impulse in the next episode of his adventurous route to political power, there was a greater probability now of that too backfiring. The repercussions to his political ambition could not have been more disastrous; suddenly the 56-inch chest of Modi seemed far too small to swallow the pride of a to-be superpower.

Even more importantly Modi and his cabal would have gone home with the RSS and the BJP reduced to the backwaters of Indian politics. Already Arvind Kejriwal and Mamta Bannerjee were making some uncomfortable noises on the nature of the India’s adventurous episode, with the latter calling for a nation-wide opposition to de-seat Modi from his disastrous course of hate politics.

That is when Modi punched his ‘disaster recovery mode’. First, he made a case again for the Rafales to be acquired from France in an attempt to recover some credibility of his earlier decision in the face of ongoing allegations of kickbacks. Soon the compliant chiefs of military staff too were making the same noise. The air chief very recently has restated the need for the Rafale to match up to Pakistan’s air power. Interesting.

And second, Modi spun the tale of the two fateful days into a Pakistan-bashing narration which gels well with his Hindu-belt voter-base giving him a fillip in the popularity surveys as the election approaches. He has made up for the embarrassment to his military’s outlandish claims of conventional superiority by buoying his own political gains with well crafted twists giving him a small surge in polls and the need to spend even more on a military found woefully short. Full marks to Modi for devious manipulation of his country’s misfortunes and turning those into political mileage. That should inform Pakistani leadership what they are up against.

What if he had gone to war as an impulse when his initial foray had been blunted and fortunes reversed? A few things were quite evident. The war would still be on without control over when it may cease. That is the unfortunate nature of war. IK said it right and well when he said we may initiate a war but its closure would not be in our hands. Truly, the mightiest superpower of its time, the US, is still struggling to close the Afghan war. Two, once begun, the war may have degenerated to the point when either side may have resorted to the ultimate weapon. Armageddon.

Pakistan’s thresholds may have been tested earlier than those of India, who knows, and that is the test the world will do well to avoid. Possible higher thresholds of India may have meant that the war would still be on. That would surely impact the economy and the political process – one, a key to Modi’s plan to break into the bigger league of global economies, and the second his end-all objective of retaining power for himself and his party. He would be the last to risk either.

And what may ensue if the world were to mediate with the threat of a nuclear war taking half the world down with it? How such international mediation may play out could place some of India’s key interests at stake. And how might the Indian electorate perceive such ceding of political space away to external elements through such strategic blundering? These aspects should foil latent ambition.

Can Modi still blunder? Possibly yes. That is in the nature of the man. His counsel is equally egregious as is the philosophy which guides his instincts. But the imperativeness of keeping control of his own and his alma mater’s (RSS) destiny is what will keep him from his impulse. As will be the call of his service chiefs who think they run an antiquated machine which is short on matching Pakistan. This is no gloating or spiting the travails of India’s misfortunes but a bare-knuckle analysis of how the inadequacies within India’s military system have come to light in the statements of their leadership.

But what when he is done with his elections and is restored to power? One may not count out the possibility of a rush of blood even before the Indian elections so Pakistan better keep all its guards up. Stupidity has barely known restraints. But were India rational it would shelve the thought. Could he then test the waters after the elections? Possibly. But a lot more would have changed by then – unless another ‘Pulwama’ gets enacted somewhere else.

The domestic political environment in India would have changed. If Modi was to be returned it is more likely to be at the head of a relatively weak government. That with such a weak disposition his penchant for unilateral adventurism might relent. That a bigger say of the opposition in the matters of the state might mean greater rationality. And cumulatively that might bestow relative peace for South Asia and the region.

The analysis is prospective; it rests on hope and rationality based around assumptions which may sustain. But the winds of international intrigue are equally guileful and can override what is rational. Then, all bets are off.

What may have then sustained from the recent stand-off, which continues – albeit at a lower intensity? The deterrence has held as the two sides came back from the brink. Rationality trumped impulse. That is sobering. The sense of conventional military one-sidedness has been subdued for now. That adds to total deterrence, as reason eliminates ambivalence.

This should keep South Asia from the brink but some sustaining support is also needed on both sides. A chance for a ‘Pulwama-2’ must be eliminated. This responsibility lies on both sides. An environment of hope must replace the doom of hopelessness which leads to the irrational. This can ensue by keeping alive some bilateral contact between India and Pakistan, and by gradually moving towards dialogue.

The people of the two countries deserve better.

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