Even the indefatigable Sri Narendra Darmodardas Modi can get tired and make mistakes. Otherwise, he would not have shot himself in the foot during his Bangladesh visit from the 5th to 7th of June. From riling women to the Congress Party to The Hindustan Times to The Times of India, Prime Minister Modi gave his critics at home and abroad a field day. For that alone, he became their pet.
In an effort at embarrassing his counterparts on being soft on terrorism, he had women up in arms. Reveling on the past victory of a preceding generation, he raised the issue of the 1971 Pakistani prisoners of war, saying: "If we had a diabolic mindset, we don't know what decision we would have taken." Nothing more, I hope, than what The Mahabharta has to say on the subject, relevant to the honour of all Indo-European cultures.
These statements were, of course aimed at the militant element among his supporters at home, who have lately expressed disappointment at his stand on these issues. Accordingly, Sri Modi’s statement fed their manly self-esteem, as it did those of the Bangladeshis who still seek redress of grievances from Pakistan.
Not bad thinking, Batman, but poor chess, since the reaction and its consequences were underestimated.
Modi further chose Bangladesh, and the Dacca University, to complain about Pakistan in India, at this stage a subject best left on the agenda of off-the-record bilateral talks. Once again, the militant wing of his supporters cheered him on for ‘saying it as it is’ (saaf saaf keh diya, haan!), a compliment usually reserved for Martina Cole’s gritty pen.
In the wake of these remarks, the Indian Army’s 21 Special Forces unit raided a rebel Naga-Manipur Coalition base in Myanmar in retaliation for the latter’s 4th June ambush of 6 Dogra Regiment, which had left 20 dead. The “hot pursuit” strike by 21 SF left around 40 dead, double the figure of the 6 Dogra Regiment casualties.
The Indian Army, then, loyally upheld their Prime Minister’s remarks in this daring and professionally executed reprisal, in the aftermath of which India’s junior Information Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore tooted that "attacks on Indians are not acceptable. This is also a message to our neighbours, who shelter terrorists."
Any doubts that the remark was aimed at Pakistan can be erased by taking into account the reaction of The Hindustan Times, The Times of India and other papers: “stirred a hornet’s nest …boastful, jingoistic … Cong takes on Modi govt … advises 'maturity’.” Rathore Sir’s quip also prompted Daily Mail India’s headline: “The real ‘signal’ the PM needs to send isn’t to Pakistan but his big-mouth colleagues.”
Pakistani leaders, instead of ignoring PM Modi and Rathore Sir’s remarks, reacted with poorly crafted verbal force. Behind these warning barks, it is hoped that they are mature enough to take adequate measures ensuring that Messrs Modi and Rathore’s remarks are groundless.
At this stage, after having fired off their verbal shots, the leaders of both countries have saved face by allowing their short-term tempers to lead them into an impasse.
Actually, this is no loss as long as both sides realise what each is up to and do not allow verbosity to disrupt cross-border dialogue. The challenge to this optimism is the ability of secrets to become public knowledge in both countries. The biggest resource of South Asian bazaars is not its samosas, faloodas, kulchas and niharis but rumours, many of them founded on whispers of fact – a re-enactment of a Great Game component so well illustrated by Rudyard Kipling in Kim.
The bottom line is that the Indo-Pakistani leaders need to be quick on the uptake and intelligent, with razor sharp double-edged slash-and-stab brains – a tall order, I suppose.
It would also appear as though Modi’s government intends to throw India’s brainy soft-power policy to the winds to flex its brawn. It might appease the recalcitrant among the BJP’s militant allies, though they should be able to spot bells and whistles.
And, if the price is to further raise the stakes of India’s strategic goal of obtaining a permanent seat in the Security Council, then India’s policy-making apparatus needs to retreat into a state of deep yogic meditation to reassess options.
Pakistan, in the meantime, holds the cards to beat Prime Minister Modi to the draw over Bangladeshi hearts and minds. The preceding decades have shown countries, cultures and peoples reconciling over slavery, genocide, colonialism and other sins.
It is perhaps time for Pakistan to take the initiative, seek ritual and public reconciliation with the Bangladeshi electorate to neutralise Mr Modi’s overtures and in the process, heal its own wounds and get rid of any residual bitterness.
This might also pave the way for Pakistan’s Middle Eastern allies to take cue and come to terms with their own past as the world’s oldest slave traders.
There is no assurance against the recurrence of such temptations by India, or for that matter, Pakistan.
As such, both countries need to take fail-safe precautions to keep dialogue in motion and nurture hope. Both sides should try to maintain fully functional and credible unofficial and secure lines of communication independent of short-term political temptations of their samosa-eating leaders.
Failure to do so could have far-reaching, regrettable consequences for both nuclear powers.