With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Delhi, the Indian foreign policy is guided by the nation’s self-interest, shaped by PM Modi’s promise ‘Desh Nahi Jhookane Doonga’.
The abject response of the Manmohan Singh government to the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 has been interpreted by some as an inevitable outcome of structural constraints which tied India’s hands. Singh’s Foreign Secretary at the time, Shivshankar Menon, has presented a long list of factors that dissuaded the Indian crisis response team under Singh from adopting a hard posture. But these convoluted and debatable rationales for inaction offer a fascinating window into the kind of leadership and thinking projected by the Manmohan Singh government. The obsession with impressing the international community and solicitousness about how the world might perceive India’s conduct is in keeping with the American scholar Margaret Hermann’s model of ‘conciliatory’ leadership, which mellows itself in order to win praise from world powers and conform to their expectations.
The behind-the-scenes diplomatic manoeuvring and crisis management by American diplomats after 26/11, which came to light a few years later, leave no doubt that there was pressure from Washington on Singh’s government to tone down its response and avoid escalating conflict with Pakistan. In return for this goody-goody behaviour, the US promised to get Pakistan to crack down on its jihad factories. The real Western game plan was to assure India that Pakistan would be compelled to shut down terrorist paraphernalia, stretch out time until the immediate crisis environment dissipated, and then leave it to India to figure out what to do about the core problem of the festering jihadist menace that was continuing to amass inside Pakistan with the full complicity of its state security establishment.
Manmohan Singh and his advisers decided they could depend on Washington to get justice for 26/11 and thereby deflect the responsibility of a sovereign state’s government to defend its own people and territory through its own means. As India let go of the window to strike Pakistan right after 26/11, it slipped into a long phase of hand-wringing and agony that the LeT, JeM and their ISI handlers were freely plotting their next attacks. The cardinal error of relying on duplicitous American promises to get Pakistan to cooperate and moderate its sponsorship of terrorism hung heavily on Singh’s record in office. Menon and other defenders of Singh have touted gains from global ‘counterterrorism cooperation’ that India received after 26/11, but that could neither contain the jihadi monster in Pakistan nor enable India to get closure on a grave injury to its national honour and image.
National security crises are stark instances in which a country and its leaders are alone in a very Hobbesian context of a ‘nasty, brutish and short’ world. Even in a globalised international order with all sorts of interdependencies and thickly institutionalised forms of cooperation, when a nation is physically brutalised with unspeakable savagery, banking on webs of multilateral cooperation and etiquettes of proper conduct validated by the international community is not a sign of leadership but of cowardice and ineptitude. While professing and pursuing a desire for peace with one’s neighbours is a noble sentiment in an ideal world, raison d'état (reason of state) demands that leaders should bite the bullet and take hard choices during national security crises.
Manmohan Singh was not wrong in latching on to the US’ promise issued in 2005 that it would ‘help India become a major world power in the 21st century’. But entering into a strategic partnership with Washington did not mean he could transfer his basic responsibility to protect Indian lives and terrain from external intruders into the hands of great foreign power. When it comes to the bargain Singh did with the US after 26/11, one is not sure what India secured at all except ignominy. American diplomats doing the firefighting to restrain India cunningly noted that ‘the GOI needed a face saver’ to take offensive options off the table. India emerged from 26/11 shamefaced.
Even though India opted for restraint and Singh’s spin doctors touted it as a wise policy that reaped dividends in the form of unprecedented assistance from the international community, the objective record showed that few foreign powers that had leverage over Pakistan bought India’s version or worked as India would have ideally wanted. 26/11 exposed the gross limitations of diplomacy without firepower.
Apart from hewing to a feeble diplomacy-centric approach, there were other reasons behind India’s spineless response to 26/11. Singh, a deferential yes-man and an ‘accidental prime minister’ who took his orders from his Congress Party chief, Sonia Gandhi, was not a fully autonomous player in policymaking. Since he could not boast of a political base of his own and looked to Sonia for cues, it is necessary to examine how Sonia’s ruling Congress Party spun 26/11 for partisan political ends.
The Congress Party’s shenanigans after 26/11 came to the fore when A.R. Antulay, a veteran loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who was Minister of Minority Affairs in Singh’s cabinet, courted controversy when he asked if there was a deeper conspiracy behind the killing of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) head, Hemant Karkare. Even though it was well established that the top cop fell to bullets of the LeT terrorists, Antulay insinuated that he may be targeted owing to his previous investigations of ‘non-Muslims involved in the acts of terrorism.’ If the ruling party of India itself sowed doubt about how an Indian officer in the line of duty died during a terrorist attack, the mixed messaging helped buttress Pakistan’s denial of any involvement in 26/11 and confused segments of the Indian public about the severity of the threat posed by the LeT and the ISI.
Politicised red herrings about ‘Hindu terror’ amid a perilous national security crisis wrought by a foreign adversary unveiled a disunited and fragmented India in an era of muddled multi-party coalitions and weaponisation of religious identities. No less than US President Barack Obama could sense the weakened and vitiated internal atmosphere in India when he recounted meeting Manmohan Singh in 2010 and heard the Indian Prime Minister again drawing the linkage between India’s Muslim minorities, Indian secularism and his weak response to Pakistan during 26/11.
In India’s noisy news media discourse, the phrase ‘politicisation of terror’ is a regular trope funnelled by politicians of all hues and backgrounds looking to score points over each other. But the politicisation that happened over 26/11 had more than domestic electoral implications. It sapped the Indian state’s will to respond adequately to Pakistan’s outrageous deed. With Singh and Sonia apparently having made up their mind that retaliation against Pakistan was not advisable, it is not surprising that the actual operational military options that were presented to the crisis response team in the Prime Minister’s Office on November 28 and December 2, 2008, were all struck down as unfeasible or too risky.
Had there been a bolder and more nationalistic leadership in New Delhi, India would have surely selected one or more options without worrying excessively about the operational risks or of international opinion. The problem was not so much a shortage of intelligence or military capabilities, imperfect as they always are in the fog of most national security crises, but a submissive political leadership with other ideas. Falling for Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail and assuming that Pakistan would counter-retaliate disproportionately using unconventional weapons of mass destruction were logical fallacies. During the Kargil War of 1999, India did not go as far as sending its military into Pakistani-controlled territory. But on that occasion, India did call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. The conflict remained below the nuclear threshold and led to a defeat and withdrawal of Pakistani forces from occupied Indian land following international intervention against Pakistan, not in its favour.
Moreover, in late 2008 around the time of the 26/11 attacks, Pakistan was in an acute economic and financial crisis and hardly in shape to dictate terms to India in any limited war. The political uncertainty following General Musharraf’s fall and the onset of a new civilian government added to Pakistan’s woes. Any perceptive eye could see that Indian decision-makers exaggerated Pakistan’s might after 26/11 to suit their pre-existing choices.
Even as the horror of 26/11 was unfolding in Mumbai, an outspoken politician who was seen as a rising star in India’s right-wing opposition, BJP delivered a stern speech outside one of the venues ravaged by the terrorists, the Oberoi Trident hotel. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, criticised the central government’s failure to avert the attack despite what he said were multiple intelligence warnings his state government had given about Pakistani terrorists using stolen Indian boats to carry out terrorism via the coastal route of western India. He also denounced the prime minister for his ‘disappointing’ speech when the attacks began and demanded an effective counterterrorism strategy. Once it became evident as months passed that India’s response was a total cop-out, Modi upped the ante and laid down in stark terms the gravity of what had happened in Mumbai and what should have been done:
Through these attacks, Pakistan had initiated a war against India, and we should have responded accordingly, but instead, the Indian government went and begged before the United States of America, pleading with them to act against Pakistan.
Since he was still only the chief minister of a state and not even the prime ministerial choice of the BJP at that stage, his opponents could rebut such fiery language as playing to the gallery to garner votes with a clarion call for hyper-patriotism. In subsequent chapters of this book, we will see that Modi defied such cynics when he went on to become prime minister of India. In spite of greater power and a much larger domain of responsibility, he did not shy away from risks and sacrifices when confronted with national security crises vis-à-vis both China and Pakistan. The remarkable strategic consistency and clarity he has manifested whenever India or Indian security interests have been in jeopardy will come through in each crisis episode I have analysed in the pages to come.
(Dr. Sreeram Chaulia is Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs. This exclusive excerpt from his latest book ‘Crunch Time: Narendra Modi’s National Security Crises’ has been published with due permission from Rupa Publications.)