It is difficult to imagine that in late September, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi challenged Pakistan to a war against poverty, a host of commentators were praising his strategic restraint. A few days later,the government went public with details of a raid along the border that it termed a surgical strike. Once again, there was no shortage of commentators who were lavish in their praise for Modi. In a column titled, “End of History, Beginning of History,” Shekhar Gupta, the former editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, identified the move as momentous and described the current government as one that saw “national benefit” in disrupting status quo.
It has since turned out that in the game of kabaddi that has been played out for decades between Indian and Pakistan across the Line of Control, this was but another raid. It is still not clear what the aims or objectives of this exercise were, so the question of asking whether it achieved its end does not arise. The beginning of a new history, if we are to believe Gupta, lay in the fact that we had decided to own up to this raid.
Security establishments across the world, obviously including the one in Pakistan, are well aware of the history of such raids between the two countries. Clearly, the Indian government’s messaging was not about ability or intent, it was about alerting ordinary citizens. By choosing to withhold any evidence that would independently confirm the raid, it became clear that this messaging was directed at citizens within the country, most of whom are always eager to buy into acts of self-assertion in a climate of heightened border tensions. It was unlikely that people elsewhere would buy the unsubstantiated claims of an alien government.
The immediate provocation for the raid seemed to have been the need to assuage the sentiment of the public, which had come to expect something other than business as usual, largely because of Modi’s rhetoric in the past. Since the announcement of the raid, the Bharatiya Janata party has fallen into a familiar pattern. Within days of the public statement, posters and hoardings extolling the surgical strike were plastered across Uttar Pradesh, which is due for elections next year. In Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, such posters depicted him as the Hindu god Rama, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif as Rama’s nemesis Ravana, and Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, as Meghanad, Ravana's son.
It was evident that this was not just the independent initiative of low-level party functionaries, particularly once it became known that Modi may not make an appearance at Delhi’s Ramleela for Dussehra, as is customary of all prime ministers, and will instead, travel to Lucknow to burn an effigy of Ravana. In fact, even as evacuation efforts were underway at the border villages in Punjab (the government of Punjab has since revoked the orders to evacuate the villages), Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, seemed to find the time to meet party workers in Lucknow and Agra, where he was felicitated by the BJP for the strike.