The week of the Uri attack was also a testing time for the Prime Minister’s leadership. Modi, adept at judging the public mood, was aware that people expected him to ‘walk the talk’ in acting tough against India’s implacable enemy.
Public opinion in the country was inflamed. People were calling for an all-out war against Pakistan. Even saner voices were advocating at least some demonstrable retribution. Modi was aware of the public sentiment and the anger that was building up in popular perception. He vowed immediate retribution. ‘I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,’ he tweeted on the day of the Uri attack. Not many people took the statement at face value. After all, politicians and prime ministers in the past had pledged stern action against terrorists and their handlers many times, but had ultimately refrained from giving that final go ahead required to retaliate, urging restraint instead.
Almost everyone thought it to be the standard condemnation – kadi ninda (severe condemnation) – as some commentators have often categorised politicians’ routine statements after each terrorist attack. However, the PM was clear in his mind that he cannot afford to be taken for granted like his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, who often dithered and failed to launch any punitive action against Pakistan even after the outrageous attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed more than 170 people and made a mockery of India’s security apparatus.
Modi had himself strongly criticised Dr Singh’s inaction then. Now, the ball was in Prime Minister Modi’s court.
The Opposition was up in arms. After a day or two of showing solidarity with the government and sympathy for those martyred, it was now mocking the government’s inability to punish Pakistan. The Congress targeted Modi, holding him ‘singularly responsible for the complete disarray’ in the government’s policy vis-a-vis Pakistan. Congress’ chief spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala had alleged that the Uri attack, which was planned and executed by Pakistan, was the result of the ‘failure’ of Modi government’s political leadership. He had also alleged that the tragedy was the result of a massive intelligence and operational failure inside the government.
Newspapers were critical too. The Times of India dug up old statements by the Prime Minister when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the UPA was in power. It recalled a statement made by Narendra Modi at Rewari on 15 September 2013: ‘The problem lies in Delhi, not at the borders… Only a competent, patriotic and people oriented government at the centre can solve the problem.’
About a month before he made this statement, Modi had tweeted: ‘India is going through a troubled situation. China intrudes our borders, Pakistan kills our soldiers time and again. But Centre doesn’t act.’
Strategic affairs analysts were also unsparing. C Uday Bhaskar wrote: ‘The Indian response to the Uri attack has followed a familiar pattern of anger against the adversary, the state-sponsored terrorist – and the ‘deep state’ represented by the Pakistan military. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has castigated Pakistan, called it a ‘terrorist state’ and imprudently cancelled his visit to the US and Russia. PM Modi has assured the nation that the perpetrators of this ‘despicable attack’ will be punished. The dominant question that has been deliberated upon with anger and anguish across the audio-visual medium and in social media over the last 24 hours is: ‘When?’
Amidst all the criticism, the Prime Minister continued to be unruffled. Recall his aides: ‘The PM went through with his daily routine and pre-scheduled appointments and programmes without any change, but made sure he had all possible options presented to him before giving the final go ahead (for a punitive strike against Pakistan).
All options, economic, political, and diplomatic were considered. They ranged from downgrading diplomatic ties, revisiting the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty, mobilising international opinion by furnishing proof of Pakistan’s complicity in terrorist attacks, and of course punish Pakistan militarily.
But he was not about to be rushed into any hasty decision.
The Prime Minister however made up his mind by 23 September, five days after the Uri attack. Later that evening, he and Doval, escorted by a Major General from the MO Directorate, walked the length of the South Block Corridor from the PMO to the Army HQ Ops room around 2100 hours, much long after the corridors had been emptied and offices had closed. Already present in the room were Defence Minister Parrikar, Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh, DGMO, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, and a couple of MO Directorate senior functionaries.
The PM sat through the briefing silently, listening with rapt attention. He was presented various options, shown targets that were planned to be hit inside PoK, and briefed on the possible retaliation/ reaction by Pakistan.
Once the initial briefing was over, Modi had a couple of questions on other possible options like a precise air strike on terrorist camps, remembers a participant. Eventually, the Prime Minister agreed that a Special Forces raid across the frontier was the best possible course of action at that point, the participant added. The PM’s situational awareness and sharp memory was also were also in evidence that night. When the subject of international reaction came up, he reminded everyone that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was to deliver her speech at the UN General Assembly in the next one week or so. The PM therefore ordered that the operation be timed after her speech. However, beyond giving general directions about the need to be careful, Modi did not get into specifics.
‘He left the planning and execution to us professionals,’ Doval told me.
So the professionals got down to business. Parrikar, Gen Dalbir and Doval analysed the situation and sent out instructions to the Northern Command for an ‘in-principle’ go ahead for a trans-LoC strike. ‘We told Udhampur (Northern Command HQ) to look for major terrorist camps. The idea was to destroy some of that infrastructure across the LoC in PoK,’ Gen Dalbir remembers.
India’s external intelligence agency, the RA&W, and the Intelligence Bureau asked its operatives to assess the possible impact of a retaliatory strike inside PoK. ‘We needed to be ready for any possible backlash,’ a top intelligence operative recalls.
Gen Dalbir, cautious but pragmatic, also sought permission from Parrikar to redeploy some key formations just in case Pakistan decided to up the ante after the retaliation. ‘As Army Chief, the onus was on me to make sure we did not fall short of firepower,’ Gen Dalbir recalls thinking throughout the week following the Uri attack, planning far beyond the retaliatory strikes. ‘I had already moved some additional forces to the Kashmir Valley to reinforce the existing security grid following large scale unrest, after we had eliminated Burhan Wani (the Kashmiri local commander),’ Gen Dalbir revealed. ‘Now I had to make sure that other areas too were ready for any possible backlash,’ he told me.
So formations responsible for borders in Punjab and Rajasthan were put on alert. A review of shortages at the local level was carried out and orders passed to replenish inventory. Meanwhile as debates – mostly acrimonious and bitter – continued to rage on television channels and in public discourse, the Indian security establishment was quietly preparing for a counterstrike on a scale that was always possible in theory, but had never been implemented in practice for fear of escalation.
As one week passed after the Uri attack, the debates tapered off; people seemed resigned to live with the bitter fact that the situation in J&K and on the LoC would continue to be volatile with the Indian army unable to take any deterrent steps.
Little did anyone know that India was about to unleash unprecedented and audacious cross-border strikes.
Credit: Nitin A. Gokhale