Barely minutes after Pakistan announced the release of the Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, “Abhi abhi ek pilot project pura ho gaya. Abhi real karna hai, pehle toh practice thi.” A pilot project was just completed, he said. The real project must be taken up now. The earlier one was just for practice.
It was Modi’s usual bravado and tendency to play with words.
Given his aversion to unrestricted media encounters, no one could ask him why a lot of pilot projects get done only on the eve of elections and never quite get scaled up to the real thing subsequently.
Nearing the end of his five-year term and seeking another, Modi has decided that a tough counterterrorism posture would provide him the wind needed to win the election. But was he not always supposed to be tough on terrorism? If so, what is the balance sheet on that, taking his entire term into account?
In 2014, during the last election campaign, Modi said his government would do more and speak less when it came to dealing with the likes of Dawood Ibrahim. He wondered why the then Congress-led government had been unable to get Dawood and maintained that action was needed to combat terrorism, not mere words. And, presumably, that he would act.
It is 2019 and Dawood is still not back in India nor, for that matter, is any of the top terrorist leaders who mostly reside in Pakistan. There is no record of any of them being killed by covert action either. Presumably, their respective pilot projects are still underway.
India’s wanted men who are reportedly in Pakistan include Abdul Subhan Qureshi, Iqbal Bhatkal, Mirza Shadab Beg, Tiger Memon, Amir Raza Khan, Mohammed Khalid aka Sagir, hijackers of IC 814, and Khalistani terrorists such as Wadhava Singh Babbar, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, Lakhbir Singh Rode, Ranjit Singh Neeta, Gajinder Singh “Hijacker”. Here, we are not even talking about the biggies – Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.
Modi’s record of dealing with terrorism and the country that backs terrorism – Pakistan – is, to put it politely, mixed. In his first year and a half in office, his relationship with Pakistan was good, and even warm. On December 25, 2015, Modi descended in the skies over Lahore and choppered to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s hometown of Raiwind. The occasion? Mian Sahib’s birthday and the pre-wedding festivities of his granddaughter who was to be married the next day.
Earlier, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa, Modi and Sharif had agreed to talks between their respective National Security Advisors. The meeting was called off because of the terror attack in Gurdaspur, but the two officials met in secret in Bangkok in December 2015.
In November 2014, Modi and Sharif had secretly met on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Nepal, as the journalist Barkha Dutt revealed in her book The Unquiet Land.
No action, only words
Thereafter came the three-year period, between the Pathankot attack and the Pulwama suicide bombing, when the government had all the time to execute its so-called pilot projects against Pakistan. To the best of public knowledge, however, none seem to have fructified into the real thing. We have neither dented the Jaish-e-Mohammad nor the Lashkar-e-Taiba. And a number of Khalistani and Indian Mujahideen terrorists continue to have sanctuary in Pakistan.
One reason was that the Jaish and the Pakistanis kept the terror campaign carefully contained. They did not strike civilian targets and only hit police, Army and Air Force posts, that too in Jammu and Kashmir and contiguous areas of Punjab. The Pakistani strategy was to avoid international opprobrium like they had received in the wake of the Mumbai attack of 2008 and the Indian Mujahaideen’s campaign of bombings in India’s northern and western cities around the same time. Barring the 2011 train bombings, which killed 26 people and injured 130, there have been no Islamist terror strikes in these areas since.
What Modi did do was what he is good at – giving speeches demanding the international community isolate Pakistan and bring into force the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which the United Nations has been debating for the past two decades.
Whether it was at the BRICS summit, the G20 gathering or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, or during his visits to other countries, Modi reiterated the message: nations promoting terror need to be isolated and the world should unite to pass the terrorism convention.
In the meantime, India refused all offers for talks with Pakistan. There were times when it seemed the two sides would talk but New Delhi pulled out because of this reason or that. As is well known, Pakistan was not quite isolated and has, in fact, managed to rebuild its relations with the United States and the West.
There is nothing wrong in making diplomatic efforts to get the international community to chastise Pakistan and pass the terrorism convention. The world would be a better place if this happens. But, at the end of the day, any real battle of counterterrorism demands action on the ground, not mere words and resolutions. There we have nothing on the Modi side of the ledger.
The only conclusion we can arrive at is that this “pilot project” business is just a lot of bluster aimed at the only thing Modi really cares about – getting reelected.
Manoj Joshi is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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