Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Uri to Pulwama: Modi’s strategy to end a terror-talk cycle

The Narendra Modi government had concluded early in its term that the India-Pakistan relationship had fallen into an unthinking cycle of talks, followed by terror, followed by more talks, ad nauseam. Both governments had unthinkingly come to accept this pattern but it was India which was taking the punishment. The outgoing government, when asked about how to handle Pakistan’s terror actions, simply told the Modi team, “Just keep talking to them." Modi’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval privately described this terror-talk cycle as the “left hand washing the right hand, while the right hand is washing the left hand."

This passivity had originated from earlier circumstances. In the past India’s military and economic strength was only marginally greater than Pakistan’s. The international community was as likely to blame New Delhi for mismanaging Kashmir as it was to blame Islamabad for sponsoring terror. India’s own domestic difficulties with Kashmir were a third element.

The Modi government decided it was time to break the cycle. It adopted a more muscular approach. Pakistan would have to learn that a major terrorist strike would be met with a strong Indian retaliation. Islamabad should no longer be able to predict the Indian response, other than it would be punitive. An old framework needed to be broken. But Modi’s national security team accepted it was an educational process that would have to unfold over a number of years – and would apply to both Pakistanis and Indians.

The first class took place two years later. The 2016 Uri attack and the reprisal that followed were effectively lesson one. India had carried out reprisals before, but it never gone public with them. It was like a military pop quiz: Islamabad could either admit the attacks and go head-to-toe with India, or it could deny them and de facto admit it didn’t want a fight. It chose the last. Uri showed the Line of Control would no longer be a barrier to Indian action. It also showed that global opinion had changed. The West and Russia criticized Pakistan, not India. Even “fair weather friend" China was very correct in its response.

Pulwama and its aftermath now constitute lesson two. Body-bag counting is a largely useless method of measuring who won and who lost. The real success of the past week of tension is that India’s “calculus of deterrence" with Pakistan has been further changed and is more deeply ingrained in the bilateral relationship.

One, India not only broached the Line of Control but it carried out a heavy bombardment on a part of Pakistan that India does not even claim is disputed. Until now, New Delhi had always attacked targets in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to make the thin legal case that it was attacking “Indian territory" and, therefore, was not in violation of international law. With the Balakot strike, India dispensed with even this fig leaf. The message to Pakistan and the wider world: if India is hit, it will strike wherever it wishes. This has similarities to Pe'ulot Ha Tagmul, roughly acts of retribution, adopted by Israel from the 1950s.

Two, Pakistan is even more isolated than it was before internationally. Traditionally, Islamabad has been able to count on the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China to provide it diplomatic cover. Today, of these four only China continues to be supportive and, after Pulwama, its public statements were at best neutral. Islamabad can take some hope in the fact Russia has moved closer to the Chinese position. But this is more than compensated by the closeness between the Gulf emirates and India.

Changing the behaviour of nations is a long process. And Modi’s moves have been as much about changing India’s mindset as it has been about changing Pakistan’s. It is unlikely that Uri and Pulwana will be enough. Some in Pakistan will wonder if the policy will survive if a weaker Indian government comes to power. There are also other elements that New Delhi must address – for example, the deterioration in the political climate in Kashmir since 2016. And, at some distant point, India will need to seek a political settlement with Pakistan but only when Islamabad has internalised that a new normal exists between the two countries. For now, however, a “new normal" has been further established both at home and next door. 

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