In the run-up to the 2014 national elections in India, one of the metaphors Narendra Modi, the Bharatya Janata Party’s (BJP) then-prime ministerial candidate, used to describe himself as having a 56-inch chest. Pooh-poohed by the opposition as a literal statement, Modi meant it metaphorically, contrasting his strong will with the weak-kneed Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, headed by Sonia Gandhi.
The rightwing, of course, lapped it up. The Congress, riven by scandals and led by a sedate and professorial Dr. Manmohan Singh, was no match to the rising tide of Modi, a master strategist, fiery speaker and three-times chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Brand Modi was so successful that the entire BJP piggy-backed him to a thumping success.
The Opposition continued to attack his 56-inch chest, though. In July 2014, when China released a map showing Arunachal Pradesh as its territory while India’s Vice-President Hamid Ansari was in China on an official visit, the Congress Party’s spokes-person, Shakeel Ahmed, tweeted: “After regular Chinese incursions and ceasefire violations by Pakistan, people are looking for Chhappan Inch Chhati Waale Bhaiya (big brother with 56-inch chest) to act at least on Twitter.”
The 56-inch chest, which got Modi into the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), is also his albatross. India is a complex country.
While it has become the world’s largest importer of arms, it also remains stuck in deep poverty. In Gujarat, Modi’s success rested on two pillars: mobilizing the rightwing and allowing big business near carte blanche. The sustainable development advocates faulted Modi’s development paradigm, but it did inflate the middle class and raise consumption. Much of this middle class, as people witnessed during the 2002 pogrom of the Muslims, was rightwing.
Modi, thus, symbolizes a masculine, raring-to-go India, not the potbellied, Professor Godbole that the Congress represented. Modi has promised to turn India into an economic and military power. He wants to leave a legacy but he isn’t in any hurry to leave, either.
To this end, he has brought India much closer to the United States, exploiting the latter’s corporate hunger for an expanding Indian market. This has been supplemented by reaching out to Japan, Australia and Western Europe while cementing relations with the ASEAN countries and establishing itself among the BRICS bloc.
Within the region, Modi has tried to present India as the clear leader. In trying to isolate Pakistan, he has further undermined SAARC while increasing bilateral outreach with the SAARC countries, especially Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the Maldives.
This is not entirely new. Previous Indian governments, too, have tried this approach. In 2001-2002, India, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP government, mobilized its army in the wake of the Parliament attack. The 10-month standoff, according to some estimates, caused India $3.2 billion in losses. On the military side, India lost over 1,800 soldiers without fighting a war.
The wear and tear of the equipment was an addition to that. That stand down ultimately led to the normalization and the 2004 dialogue process mechanism. The process had a setback in 2008 following the Mumbai attacks, but recovered as both sides resumed dialogue. It worked as a crisis management mechanism until the rise of Modi.
Since then, and despite attempts, including rebranding the process as a comprehensive bilateral dialogue and Modi’s pitstop in Lahore on December 25 last year, relations have nosedived.
At the center of this stands Kashmir. Unlike previous governments, including that of Vajpayee’s, Modi made clear from the outset that Kashmir will be dealt with differently. The first indication of that came almost immediately after Modi won the elections.
The minister of state at the PMO, Jitendra Singh, stated that the Centre had started the process for repealing Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) within the Indian republic.
Since then, two petitions to this effect have been rejected by the J&K high court and one by India’s Supreme Court. But the issue lingers on. The idea is to subsume Kashmiris into India and Article 370, reasons Modi’s cohort, sets Kashmir apart from the rest of India, an “anomaly” they want to do away with.
A further indication of this, was Modi cancelling the foreign secretaries’ meeting when Pakistan’s high commissioner met with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference leaders in Delhi, a traditional practice that has gone on for decades.
Meanwhile, the Indian-administered Kashmir has erupted again and this time the intifada (uprising) doesn’t seem to end. It started with the killing of a young leader Burhan Wani. By all accounts, no one in India and not even the ruling state government had any idea about what was simmering under the surface. By the Kashmiri accounts anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 people came, many trekking, some on mule-backs, to participate in Wani’s funeral. Since then, over 100 Kashmiris have been killed, hundreds fully or partially blinded because of the use of pellet guns, hundreds arrested and thousands more injured. It is a travesty of everything that a democracy must stand for.
But there’s method in this madness. The policy is to take the cost of repression but inflict a greater cost on the Kashmiris. Simultaneously, move the issue away from what it is—the right to self-determination of the Kashmiris, an inalienable right, a right which being such, cannot be limited—and turn it into an India-Pakistan dispute.
This was the thrust of India’s approach at the U.N.’s Human Rights Council meeting and it remained the thrust at the UNGA sessions: What’s happening in Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan and Pakistan is using “terrorist” proxies to that end.
Anticipating that Pakistan will raise Kashmir unequivocally at the UNGA, Modi talked about Pakistan at the G-20 Summit, calling it a state sponsor of terrorism. This mantra is the motif.
Then, days before the speech at the UNGA by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, there was an attack on a hard military target in Uri, which killed 19 Indian soldiers and injured over 35. While the smoke was still billowing from the site of the attack, the Indian government and the media had begun crying about Pakistan’s “foul hand” behind the attack.
To wit, it is unclear who perpetrated the attack. But it is clear that the attack helped push to the back-burner India’s repression of Kashmiris, forcing many in Pakistan to believe that it was a false flag operation. Evidently, until more information emerges, that position, too, remains uncertain.
Eleven days after that attack, Indian media was abuzz with reports that the Indian army had done a major operation to “avenge Uri.” Later in the day, the Indian director-general of military operations and the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs appeared jointly before the press, and the DGMO read out a statement in English and Hindi, saying the military had conducted “surgical strikes” “along the line of control” and destroyed “terrorist launch pads.” He called it an anti-terror operation which involved Special Forces personnel. That said, no questions were taken at the presser.
As if on cue, the Indian media, barring some exceptions, went euphoric, calling it a “huge development,” one that had called Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff” a “game-changer,” et cetera. Deliberately planted leaks gave piecemeal information on how the ops was conducted, what weapons were used, how the Indian troops ingress. No one stopped to think or do any math about the time the claimed operation started and ended and then break it down to figure out how much load (combat gear and supplies) the troops were carrying, what time would it take for them to travel the distances they did in enemy territory to reach the target, how much time would they need to spend to engage the targets on the ground, what will be the noise they will cause doing so, how might they have extricated and moved back to base.
These are just some of the obvious questions. They were obviously not asked and are still not being asked. The Pakistan army’s response has been clear: no incursions took place, though there was exchange of fire at four points on the Line of Control (LoC). Further reports by the BBC, the New York Times and other foreign publications, speaking with people in the claimed areas of infiltration, say the local people have no knowledge of any incursions, though they report exchange of fire and the safety drills associated with such exchanges. The spokesperson of the U.N. secretary general has also said that the UNMOGIP observers have not confirmed any violation of the LoC by the Indians.
That said, Modi has sold to his people the narrative that he managed to do something. Has he extricated himself from the 56-inch chest bind? No. Having done this information operation, he has set the stage for greater expectations. If Modi can do it once, he should be able to do it again. Interestingly, despite claiming to have “destroyed terror launch pads,” Rashtriya Rifles and border security force camps came under attack on the night of October 2. The attackers killed one Indian soldier and injured another and managed to slip away. How will Modi respond?
Clearly, no matter what Modi thinks he can do, unless he wants to get into a spiral, India will be better advised to come to the table and talk about the issues identified in the CBD. There’s no alternative to that. Delhi will also have to defuse the crisis in Indian-administered Kashmir and begin to talk about a settlement on the basis of Kashmiri aspirations.
That’s the sensible course of action. The day India claimed the “surgical strikes,” Sensex fell by 465 points. Modi will have to choose between beating his chest (war) and placating his stomach (economy). The two cannot be reconciled.
Ejaz Haider is a journalist based in Lahore and writes on politics and national security affairs.