On Sunday, a group of militants attacked an army base in Uri. Eighteen Indian soldiers died in the assault. This wasn’t the first time militants had struck during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister. Earlier, in January, militants launched an attack on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. In July 2015, even a police station in Gurdaspur was targeted. Just three months back, in June, the Lashkar-e-Taiba struck, killing eight Indian soldiers. In total, there have been more than 20 attacks on military installations in Jammu and Kashmir since Modi took office.

For a politician who has made his career being a hawk on Pakistan, these attacks, on hard targets such as army bases, were highly embarrassing for Modi. After Uri, liberals trolled him for being unable to suitably penalise Pakistan as he had threatened he would do. Modi’s earlier statements asking for war in response to terror attacks were trotted out to embarrass him, given that he had abandoned conflict as a serious tactic once the responsibilities of prime ministership hit home.

Of course, it was ironic that Modi was getting attacked by liberals after he had mostly accepted their point of view that war with Pakistan was an unviable option, even as right-wing keyboard warriors bayed for blood. As this episode shows, India’s adversarial climate means that political debates revolve around personalities and not issues.

Irresponsible sabre rattling

This is not to deny Narendra Modi’s extreme irresponsibility as a warmonger in his days before he had to shoulder the burden of being prime minister. In an interview he gave to television journalist Rajat Sharma in 2011, Modi raged about Pakistan, calling it an “enemy country” and a nation of “expert liars”. He ridiculed the United Progressive Alliance government’s policy of trying to talk peace with Pakistan and hinted that if it were up to him, he would use force to respond to the 26/11 attack on Mumbai and other terror operations emanating from Pakistan. “A neighbour hits you and in response you go to America!” he said. “Why don’t you go to Pakistan instead? It needs to be replied back in its own coin. Stop writing love letters to Pakistan.”

Modi’s hardline stance struck a chord and was one reason he got voted into office in 2014. Of course, it is also undeniable that war between two nuclear weapon states, who are also neighbours, is a terrifying scenario that might be easy to talk about but rather more difficult to actually risk.

Peace between India and Pakistan is often depicted as some sort of woolly-headed idealism and “Wagah candle brigade” is a pejorative sneer often used to attack peaceniks. As Modi’s U-turn showed, though, peace isn’t impractical romanticism – it is hardheaded reality. Modi might have been grandstanding about war with Pakistan back in his salad days as chief minister when his brief included neither foreign affairs nor defence; but as the Union's prime minister, the ground situation meant his government had to bat for peace.

A welcome U-turn

Modi might have made a U-turn here, but to his credit he did it with panache. Modi had bitterly criticised the Manmohan Singh government for going soft on Pakistan while in Opposition but as prime minister Modi actually went past Singh, turning the peace process into a typical Modi-style television extravaganza. In December 2015, the Indian prime minister actually went to Lahore on an impromptu visit, with visuals of him hugging Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being splashed across the media. In an unprecedented measure, a Pakistani investigative team was actually invited by the Modi government to help probe the Pathankot airbase attack – a far cry from India calling Pakistan a "terror state" in the United Nations on Thursday.

With respect to Pakistan, therefore, Modi has carried on Singh’s policy of strategic restraint, trying to alternate between putting diplomatic pressure and building bridges. After a cathartic war of words with Pakistan at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, the Modi government has fallen back on well-worn diplomatic channels to try and tackle the Uri fallout. India demanded that Pakistan shut down terror camps in its territory while Pakistan’s top diplomat Sartaj Aziz indicated Islamabad was ready for a probe into the Uri attack.

It’s nearly business as usual.

By choosing Manmohan Singh-style diplomacy to tackle Pakistani terror, Modi might open himself to attacks from liberals and peaceniks, looking for some tit for tat after Modi's attacks on them from 2004 to 2014. But if the Wagah candle holders are smart, they will resist the urge to embarrass Modi – thus, inadvertently, pressing him to be more aggressive – and rather choose happiness in the peace that this U-turn might bring.