How Narendra Modi’s surgical strike turned into a monumental farce

Quartz india
Quartz india

It was meant to be Narendra Modi’s moment of glory. Now it looks like a sham.

India’s military raid across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir on Sept. 29 has become a matter of deep political bickering and crass opportunism. The Indian Army called it a surgical strike. Two weeks later, India’s politicians are still doing the autopsy.

First, there was an intense debate on whether the government should publish videos or photographic evidence of the strike after Pakistan claimed that no such strike had taken place. Similar demands, made by politicians such as Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, were dubbed “anti-national.” They were projected by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and some news channels, as questioning the Indian Army itself.

The government, on its part, fuelled speculation that it might publish the visual evidence after all. In off-the-record background briefings on Sept. 29, journalists were told as much.

Meanwhile, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt interviewed former home minister P. Chidambaram of the Congress party. Intriguingly, after running promos, the channel chose to not run the interview. It wanted to stand in solidarity with the army and not broadcast it as “political mud-slinging regarding the surgical strikes without a shred of evidence was actually damaging to our national security.”

Chidambaram later said he had mentioned nothing controversial in the interview. He told The Indian Express that all he said was that the Congress party supported the strike and whatever decision the government takes, his party would back it. He also said that it might not be a bad idea to put out the evidence, not because he didn’t believe the Indian Army, but merely to call Pakistan’s bluff.

Now, how was this damaging to national security, as NDTV claimed?

In any case, after days of speculation, the government ultimately decided to not release any evidence after all.

However, there is another contentious debate that is far from over.

The surgical strike was presented by the Modi government and media as a first: Finally, India had crossed the LoC, giving up its policy of strategic restraint in dealing with Pakistan. At long last, the country had shown that it was capable of “responding.” Not even during the 1999 Kargil war had India crossed the LoC.

So, Modi meant business, or so it was claimed.

‘30 years of steam’

However, now we are being told that such strikes have been carried out in the past, too.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Chidambaram said it was decided that the cross-border raids during his time in the government were not to be made public. As part of the government’s policy of “strategic restraint,” the government allowed the army to deal with cross-border actions against Pakistan at an “operational, tactical level.”

Other sources, too, have debunked the claim that such strikes had never been carried out in the past. The Hindu published a detailed account of “Operation Ginger,” carried out in 2011. This “strike” was executed to avenge the killing and beheading of Indian soldiers. During Operation Ginger, Indian soldiers meted out the same treatment to Pakistani personnel across the LoC.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, added his weight to these claims.

“Covert operations were not announced to the country because the primary goal was to pacify the LoC and cut down infiltration and ceasefire violations, not to manage public opinion at home. By keeping operations covert rather than overt, it was made possible for the Pakistan Army to climb down and for a temporary peace to be re-established,” Menon told The Hindu. He also said the term “surgical strike” was being misplaced.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, however, is not impressed.

“I have been holding this portfolio for two years now. To my knowledge, there were no surgical strikes in the past. Those actions can at best be called covert operations where action was taken first and the government informed later. But the Sept. 29 strikes were a result of a government decision,” Parrikar said yesterday (Oct. 12) in what looked like an attempt to redefine the word covert.

Thirty years of steam had been finally let off, the minister claimed.

Not surprisingly, the Congress party wants Parrikar to apologise for his statement.

All the king’s men

The reason for this war of words is political credit.

Opposition parties are loath to allow prime minister Modi and his party to take the credit for the surgical strike less than six months before five state polls. One such state is the all-important Uttar Pradesh (UP).

 In some of the election posters in UP, Modi has been portrayed as Lord Ram. The strike, presented as a jaw-for-a-tooth response to the terrorist attack that killed 20 Indian soldiers in Kashmir, evoked nationalist sentiments akin to a war victory. This would naturally help the BJP electorally. And the ruling party is in no mood to let go of the opportunity.

BJP leaders in UP are already reminding us that prime minister Modi’s chest is “56 inches wide.” Posters have appeared in UP celebrating the surgical strike, juxtapositioning the prime minister’s photo with the image of the silent soldier and some handy text threatening Pakistan. In some of these, Modi has been portrayed as Lord Ram and his Pakistani counterpart as the demon king Ravana. “We will go to the people with this issue—because every responsible party should motivate the army,” BJP president Amit Shah has said.

The prime minister has reportedly asked his ministers to avoid “chest thumping” as it could only provoke more terrorist attacks. There have already been four such attacks in Kashmir since the strike, clearly indicating that it wasn’t surgical enough.

Parrikar says the political leadership should get credit. Before the prime minister’s orders to tone it down, Parrikar had compared the Indian Army to Hanuman, the powerful monkey god. In the epic Ramayana, Hanuman, who could move mountains, had to be made aware of his capabilities by Jambawan, the bear king.

The defence minister had even planned a “victory rally” in his home state Goa, which goes to polls in early 2017. Following criticism, he postponed it. Now, in his presence, UP BJP leaders are talking about using nuclear bombs against Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Parrikar has said he wears better, simpler clothes than his predecessors, initiating a deft sartorial strike.

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