There’s more exasperation than expectation in the air post the Pulwama attack.
There’s a surfeit of angry expressions such as avenge, retaliate, demolish, smoke them out, hurt their economy and cut water flow going around, but behind all this lurks the sinking feeling that nothing is going to change. Pakistan will get away with it again, maybe with some bruises caused by a surgical strike, a limited war, economic sanctions or global isolation. India, after euphoric celebration of a few days, would face another assault. The cycle would continue.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised, in measured words, an eye for an eye response. Such words may be soothing for Indians seeking quick revenge, but he himself must be aware that no measure against Pakistan will be a complete one in isolation. Such is the complexity of the Pakistani state, a rogue one by all definition, and such is the delicate balance of regional geopolitics involving China as another player, that any action might lead to some unintended bad consequences. The measure, whatever it is, has to be well-thought out and designed for the long term. And it should not be taken in a hurry.
However, this is an election year. The government may find it difficult not to be seen acting swiftly after Pulwama. It has to align itself to the public mood to match the expectations it has raised, otherwise, the electoral consequences would be disastrous. Actions such as denying the most favoured status to Pakistan or calls for global isolation of the country or killing of a few militants in Kashmir will not suffice.
It is up to the government to make the next move. The country is watching. But the prime minister and his party have to be extremely careful.
It would be tragic if the Right eco-system in the country seeks to ferret out an opportunity in this tragedy and builds a communal narrative around it in the run-up to the general elections. No doubt, the temptation to leverage the sense of outrage among the general public and align it with the re-election bid would be irresistible, but it might lead to dangerous consequences for India.
Perhaps it would be exactly what the country’s enemies want. A bristling, communally polarised country opens up scope for them to move beyond Kashmir and involve themselves in affairs in other parts of the country. We have already noticed the stray statement linking the Pulwama attack to the Hindutva agenda. Modi must ensure there’s no amplification and escalation of it.
Of course, Kashmir needs to be handled with delicately. The muscular approach, which sees use of raw force as an efficacious solution to a vastly complex problem, needs an urgent review. An alienated Kashmir is not in the interest of India. Kashmir is not only about sprawling real estate, it is about Kashmiris, their sentiments, pride and aspirations too. When thousands of ordinary Kashmiris, including women, children and the elderly, throng the funeral of slain militants despite the presence of forces, the message is clear.
Whatever the narrative in the rest of India or on television channels helmed by hyper-patriotic editors, the locals in the valley consider the dead their own. The massive presence of security forces and the overhanging threat of coercive action has not changed this reality. To make matters worse, in the last few years, the attendance is getting larger, a reflection of the fact that the we-feeling is getting stronger, and the distance from India is getting wider.
Any measure the prime minister contemplates should take this into consideration. Defence personnel can fight armies, terrorists, militants and other identifiable targets but there are few examples in history where they have won conclusive and durable victories fighting against people at large. Managing an alienated and angry population is simply not their job. It is the job of the government. It is duty-bound to come up with a coherent policy, which not only reduces the threat perception from the locals but also protects our defence personnel from avoidable conflicts. So many defence personnel coming home in coffins is not a happy sight. We want our soldiers alive.
It would help if the government keeps the jingoism going around on television channels and elsewhere, down. Action should speak louder than words.
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