Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pathankot Attack

Is Pathankot Doval’s Second Kandahar?

Article First Published in +ABPLIVE (click here to read)

Just on the eve of the New Year – a retired intelligence officer who had accompanied Ajit Doval on the Kandahar rescue mission – recalled in a tweet its 15th anniversary and what a New Year celebration it was for them on return. In sharp contrast, 2016 – opened with the Pathankot attack.

The sister publication of this channel – Ananda Bazar Patrika, the highest circulated Single Edition Daily, had a tongue-in-cheek headline “Doval-ee Doba-len Pathankot-e”. Though the nuance of the pun is lost in translation – roughly it meant: Doval “goofed up” Pathankot. A day ago – the group’s English Daily – The Telegraph, Calcutta – carried a well-researched account of how the Pathankot counter operations were mishandled and raised numerous unanswered questions over the attack and its subsequent handling. The refrain has been similar across large sections of mainstream media.

As expected in this day and age of Social Media, the cacophony of rival choirs – one singing accolades for Doval and the other running him down–filled the airwaves and choked intellectual bandwidth. The mysteries and gaffes apart – there was no doubt that Pathankot – was a phenomenal attack on a defence base, just as Mumbai 26/11 was on civilians. What set apart Pathankot even more was – the almost simultaneous assault on the Indian Consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Discerning analysts who are not caught up in jingoistic crossfire on TV and Op-eds - were quick to pick up the distinguishing features of the latest denouement. First, the chinar-leaf of Kashmir has been dropped and now it’s a no-holds bar attack on India. There was none of the customary denials of where the attackers came from and the control station of the operations. Finally – parallel opening of the Afghan front was a loud and clear signal for India – to stay-off Pakistan’s backyard.

On the domestic front – with Doval taking most of the ire and flak – to an extent spared the Prime Minister of a frontal attack by the opposition and media. But, does this also indicate a weakening of Narendra Modi’s -“leveling” as it were – in one area where he was head and shoulder over his predecessors and contemporary Asian leaders?

In a previous article – this author had himself argued that however stage-managed and choreographed the stop-over at Lahore – was necessary to apply soothing aloe-vera over the blisters that Pakistan had surely developed after display of camaraderie in Kabul. But, as it turned out, the bon-homie with one Sharif (Nawaz) probably left the other Sharif (Army Chief, Raheel) smarting – just like Musharraf was miffed after Vajpayee’s Lahore bhai-chara.

Was there a miscalculation in choosing the hug and holding hands photo-shop moment – prompted as it might have been by common friends in  Washington - preceded by a well-publicized meeting between the two NSAs on neutral ground (Bangkok) ? Certainly – hyping it up as “unconventional” and “out of the box” diplomacy was premature. By now, both Modi and the Indian establishment should have realized that dining with Nawaz Sharif was as futile as Modi having “Chai-pe-Charcha” with Sonia Gandhi. Neither want him to succeed.

Clearly – the PMO (meaning the NSA) and the Foreign Office should have better anticipated the mood and tested the ground in Lahore before letting the Prime Minister make an unscheduled landing there. As one redoubtable commentator has pointed out –Nixon’s China Visit came after months of preparation by Kissinger.

The subsequent blabber over Pakistan’s action (which some TV anchors eloquently called “back-stabbing”) ranging from remonstrations to restraint (the ‘talks must carry on’) reveals confusion in India’s Af-Pak policy that is akin to what one sees on issues of the economy and reforms at home. Coming after the Bihar setback – as it does – it may not augur well from the Prime Minister’s standing in the balance 3 odd years of his term.

The trajectory of Modi’s tenure seems to be trailing that of Obama. First disappointments on the domestic front – followed by setbacks in foreign policy. Already one sees RSS increasing control over by appointing “Pracharaks” at the helm at many places – West Bengal, Rajasthan – now probably UP and Bihar too. Though far from being a ‘lame-duck’ Prime Minister by any stretch of imagination – there is need for some strong rear-guard action – not just to stop the slide and check the drift but recover lost ground and put Modi back in the driver’s seat once again.

But, Pathankot like Kandahar will hang around Mr. Doval’s neck like a cross for a long time to come – unless neutralized in a short time.