Book review: How Pulwama made Modi's Balakot response his 1971 moment

Narendra Modi arrived in the national capital well past 7 pm on 14 February as late winter darkness enveloped the city. It had already been a long day which had begun early morning with a trip to the forests of Uttarakhand for the Discovery Channel shoot. The Pulwama attack meant that the prime minister could scarcely afford to even think of his jungle adventure. A crisis meeting was already on at the national security secretariat, with Doval once again taking charge of the rapidly developing situation. The prime minister was given a full briefing on the nature of the strike. As the death toll rose, it became apparent that the suicide attack had shaken the country. On TV, angry political voices were baying for blood; “Khoon ka badla khoon” (Blood for blood), screamed a retired major-general. J&K governor Satya Pal Malik was heard admitting to an intelligence failure, a point emphasised by opposition leaders like the Congress’s Digvijaya Singh.

With the general election announcement less than a month away, time was not on the side of the government. The 2016 surgical strikes had set the template: Team Modi realised that it couldn’t afford to sit back and wait for the situation to gradually unravel. The first step was to ensure that the government, and not the opposition, controlled the narrative. Before the “intelligence failure” chorus could gather any further momentum, the spirit of martyrdom was invoked. When the bodies of the forty slain CRPF jawans reached Palam air force area in a special Indian Air Force plane the next evening, the prime minister was there to pay homage. With a thick black shawl wrapped around his shoulders, hands folded and head bowed, Modi walked slowly around each of the 40 coffins draped in the tricolour. It was a solemn moment, one which opposition leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, were also part of. In a time of national mourning, any talk of “intelligence failure” seemed jarring. The prime minister also directed all his ministers and BJP MPs to attend the funerals of the jawans who had belonged to their respective states. Funeral processions were organised through the towns and villages of the martyrs: 12 of the jawans were from Uttar Pradesh. The mood was one of grief and remembrance, and slowly building up into anger and revenge.

The TV studio was back to being transformed into a high-decibel war room as news channels competed with each other to capture the rage of a wounded nation. Incendiary hashtags like #PakWill Pay and #IndiaWants Revenge were stamped on the screen. “Pakistan must be taught a lesson they will never forget, bahut ho chuka” an angry relative was heard shouting on TV. War game strategies were being feverishly discussed, including the possibility of targeted missile attacks inside Pakistan. “So what if there is a threat of a nuclear war, we can meet any challenge,” a general known for his strident views blared on TV.

Inside Pakistan, the mood was more sombre, a reflection of a troubled nation caught in the cross hairs of a crumbling economy and well-entrenched terror infrastructure, with a new leadership at the helm. Imran Khan had been elected as prime minister in August 2018, marking the culmination of a remarkable journey from World Cup-winning captain to the country’s chief executive. Imran was charismatic and courageous, but where his cricket had dazzled, his political inclinations were viewed with suspicion: He was sometimes referred to as “Taliban” Khan for his alleged support to the Afghan Taliban militias. Others saw him as a “puppet” of the army, a leader being propped up by the men in uniform who wanted greater control over the civilian leadership. I knew Imran reasonably well: A strong cricket connection was our common bond and during the 2011 World Cup, Imran had even spent a month with us in the studios as a cricket analyst. Soon after he took over as prime minister, I asked him for an interview, only to receive a stern message via WhatsApp: “The Indian media has not been kind to me. I can’t believe they sided with that crook Nawaz Sharif. I will speak to you, but not now.”

Imran, in fact, enjoyed a peculiar love–hate relationship with India. No other Pakistan prime minister had visited India so often or had so many friends among the country’s rich and famous, and yet he was also a politician whose firm views on contentious issues like Kashmir attracted furious responses. In December 2015, Imran was in India to attend Aaj Tak’s annual conclave: The Indian high commission in Islamabad offered to facilitate a meeting with Prime Minister Modi. “What’s Mr Modi like?” he asked me. “I am sure you will find out for yourself soon,” was my prompt response. Imran, then an opposition leader, spent 45 minutes in conversation with Modi. He returned, clearly bowled over by the prime minister. “He seems a really nice guy, not at all how the media portrays him!” he gushed. Imran’s special assistant, Naeem-ul-Haq, who was also at the meeting, recalls Prime Minister Modi telling Imran that Pakistan should import tea from India. “It was all very cordial and warm,” says Haq. In his initial remarks after taking over as prime minister, Imran seemed keen to reciprocate that warmth. “If India takes one step, we will take two,” promised Imran in his inaugural address to the nation. A month later, in September 2018, reality struck. India called off foreign minister-level talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meet in New York, citing the continuing violence in Kashmir as the reason.

“I am disappointed with the Modi government, I don’t understand this behaviour. Surely leaders must look beyond elections,” was his response when I repeated my request for an interview which he once again politely declined.

In November 2018, peace was back on the agenda. India and Pakistan announced that they would develop the Kartarpur Corridor: A 2.5-kilometre corridor that would link two holy Sikh shrines across the border to facilitate the visa-free movement of Sikh pilgrims who wished to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib — the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev — in Pakistan’s Kartarpur. The announcement had come on the back of a much-publicised “hug” between the Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Punjab Congress cricketer turned politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu, during Imran’s swearing-in ceremony. “I am a goodwill ambassador,” exulted Sidhu, brushing aside criticism of his actions, and revelling in his new-found stardom across the border. Now, just three months after the jhappiyan-pappiyan (hugs and kisses) of Kartarpur, the massacre in Pulwama came as a wake-up call. The dark side of Pak-based terror groups was bared once again, leaving New Delhi with few options but to strike back.

“Is India really going to war?” a worried Pakistani journalist friend asked me. I didn’t respond but an escalating conflict appeared inevitable. Prime Minister Modi was pretty clear right from the outset: He would not go in for a “soft” option. “Previous governments may have chosen the diplomatic route but this prime minister wanted an offensive option that would end Pakistan’s ‘nuclear blackmail’ once and for all,” says a senior official. In 2001, when Parliament was attacked, then prime minister Vajpayee had reportedly considered an air strike on Pak-based terror camps but abandoned the idea for fear of the situation spiralling out of control. Instead, a 10-month long deployment of armed forces along the border under Operation Parakram was the preferred choice. When terrorists struck in Mumbai in 2008, the Manmohan government too had reportedly weighed the options of an air strike before eventually choosing coercive diplomacy as a more effective response. “I do not know what the air force was telling itself but that [an air strike] is not the message the political leadership heard from the three chiefs who briefed Dr Singh’s government. I heard no fear of escalation but only a clear calculation of likely outcomes and which would be better for India,” explains Shiv Shankar Menon, former foreign secretary and national security adviser to the UPA government.

Soldiers examine the site of an explosion in Pulwama district in February Photo: Reuters/file
Modi though was unwavering in his belief that the “strategic restraint” script needed to be rewritten, even if it meant taking an audacious risk before a general election. The message to Doval and the armed forces chiefs was unambiguous: There must be “visible” action against the terror groups and their handlers embedded in the Pakistani state. The focus needed to be on the terror training camps; collateral damage to civilian and military targets was to be avoided at all costs. In effect, India’s response needed to be proportionate to what Pakistan had done and within range of what the international community would view as “reasonable” action. Says India Today editorial director Raj Chengappa, “The idea was not to prevent escalation but to get the escalation threshold just right.” It was a risk, but one which, in the circumstances, was seen as one well worth taking.

Operation Bandar was carried out around 3 a.m on 26 February under the cover of darkness by a squadron of a dozen Mirage 2000 aircraft equipped with Israeli built SPICE (Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective) bombs and aided by a sophisticated guidance system that could hit with precision at an intended target 60 kilometres away. The Mirages were accompanied by four Sukhoi 30s to provide air cover. Two surveillance aircraft and two IL 76s were also deployed for mid-air refuelling. As the aircraft flew into Pakistani airspace, one lot flew towards Bahawalpur, misleading the Pakistan air defence system into believing that the Jaish camp in the Punjab region was the target. As Pakistani fighters scrambled to take on the Indian jets, the low-flying Mirage 2000s headed for Balakot. By the time the Pakistani radar detected them, they were already 150 kilometres away. Five bombs reportedly struck the targets, three of them hitting the buildings where the Jaish recruits were staying. The actual bombing lasted for just 13 minutes, between 3.40 a.m and 3.53 a.m; by the early hours of 26 February, the jets were back in India, mission accomplished.

The 7-a.m news report was buzzing with the big breaking news: “Pulwama Avenged” with fireballs spewing out from different corners of the television set. Shedding any notion of journalistic objectivity, news anchors were congratulating the Modi government for “teaching Pakistan a lesson”. There was bedlam on social media too: At one stage, all the top 10 trends in the country on twitter were linked to Balakot.

For Prime Minister Modi, the 48 hours leading up to the air strikes had been business as usual. On 24 February, he had travelled to Gorakhpur in eastern UP, where the BJP would battle the Akhilesh– Mayawati combine, to launch the Kisan Samman Yojana, where the first instalment of the ~6000 annual financial assistance to farmers was credited to their Jan Dhan accounts. A series of regular meetings followed the next day as Modi kept up the pretence of normalcy. But under the calm exterior, anxiety was reportedly mounting: Modi would stay awake all night, one eye on the computer screen, the other on the phone. He had taken a big gamble, one that could make or break his prime-ministerial tenure. It was only around 4 a.m that Modi was informed of the mission’s successful completion and he could finally relax a bit.

By 11.30 a.m., the then foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, officially acknowledged the strikes  inside Pakistan as part of a “non-military, pre-emptive strike”, claiming that a number of fidayeen and terror trainers had been killed. “I think Balakot was a strategy of measured escalation that was proportionate to the Pakistani provocation and deserves to be applauded,” says G Parthasarthi, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. Islamabad’s “nuclear blackmail” threat had been responded to in a decisive manner. The world was standing by India’s action as was most of the country.

This was the moment Prime Minister Modi had been waiting for from the day he moved to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. His complex persona is riven by a desire to be both feared and embraced. The fear factor had been established domestically early enough; now, the world was ready to accept him as a true global figure. Not since the 1971 war, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister had the Indian Air Force penetrated so deep into Pakistani air space and inflicted damage on the “enemy”. Although he might not admit it publicly, Indira is a politician whom Modi admires, even if he often describes the Emergency as a “dark chapter” in democracy. “Modi often attacks Nehru but despite the Emergency, you will rarely see him condemn Indira. I think he secretly approves of her autocratic, centralising tendencies in spirit if not in letter,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyaya, a Modi biographer. Balakot, at least in the shaping of Modi’s larger-than-life image, was his version of 1971, proof of decisive leadership.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel